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Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh!

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Kookaburra at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
I have quite a few favorite animals. When you work at the zoo, it’s hard to pick just one, but I never walk past the kookaburras without smiling. These birds are totally one of my favorites. Why? Here are the top ten reasons kookaburras are one of the coolest aves at the zoo:

1. Kookaburra itself is a very fine word, try saying it without smiling… impossible.
The name "kookaburra", COOK-ah-burr-ah, came from the aboriginal tribal group, the Wiradjuri people, of New South Wales in Australia. They named this bird for the laughing sound it makes, onomatopoeic of its call.

2. Kookaburras sit in trees and laugh all day long.

Although they vocalize more at dusk and dawn, kookaburras have one of the most unique vocalizations of any animal. Their laugh is so distinctive that it has been widely used in soundtracks on television, in movies, and more recently in videogame soundscapes. Their distinct laugh is often featured as a sound effect in jungle scenes set in Africa or South America, thousands of miles away from their native land. Ever seen a Tarzan film? How about Jurassic Park!

Kookaburra, mid-laugh. Photo by Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo.

3. They chew gumdrops.
No. They don’t actually chew gum or eat gum drops. They do, however, live in eucalyptus trees, which are also sometimes referred to as gum trees for the sticky sap they produce. Laughing kookaburras prefer eucalyptus woodlands and open forests. They do not need much water to exist and can live in almost any part of eastern Australia as long as there are trees big enough to contain their nest cavities and open patches sufficient for hunting grounds.

4. They’re design junkies.
Kookaburras are not capable of excavating new nest holes, making them reliant on the presence of natural cavities from broken tree branches, fire scars, or vacated nests. One of the more unique options is an old termite mound. Termite mounds are the apartment complexes of the Kookaburra hood, many mounds can be as tall as 12 feet high, and show off some really awesome architecture! Kookaburras prefer intricate knots in eucalyptus trees to any old standard bird’s nest.

Tom Sjolund took this photo of a kookaburra in his backyard, Australia. The kookaburra has found a home in a termite nest. Photo by Tom Sjolund via Backyard Wildlifers.

5. Wake up and say g'day!
Camping in the Australian outback? No need to set an alarm clock, the kookaburra’s call will wake you up precisely at dawn and let you know when it’s about to get dark. Known as the bushman’s alarm clock, many Aboriginal stories tell the tale of how the kookaburra lets everyone know it’s time to wake up and greet the sun!

Kookaburras have pairs of toes which are fixed together. This allows them to perch on branches for very long periods while they quietly wait for prey. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
6. Bling. They have their own coin collection from the Perth Mint of Australia.
Since 1989 the Perth Mint has issued a silver bullion coin to commemorate the Kookaburra. Many variations exist with a new proof design each year and extra stamps for special occasions. It is one of the most popularly traded modern coins and comes in four weights: 1oz, 2 oz, 10 oz, and 1 kg – the world’s largest silver coin!

7. Best mates!
Pairs are monogamous and mate for life. Kookaburras are highly social and often live in extended family groups composed of the adult breeding pair and offspring remaining in their natal territory as helpers. Both the male and female, and little helpers to a lesser extent, incubate the eggs. After hatching, the chicks are fed, brooded and defended by all members of a family group. After about four years of age, the helpers leave to start their own territories.

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

8. Put another shrimp on the barbie.
They appreciate a good Australian barbeque. Don’t leave the lid to that barbie open too long! When living in close proximity to humans, kookaburras are well known to accept food scraps and other offerings and will readily come down to an occupied picnic table or kitchen window for hand-outs. They have adjusted to urban development and often inhabit suburban areas, which provide both barbeques and shelter.

9. A conundrum: largest kingfishers…that don’t fancy fish.
Kookaburras are the largest species of kingfishers in the world, weighing up to 350 g, but they don’t usually catch fish because they tend to live farther away from water. Preferring reptiles and rodents, kookaburras are generalists and will eat anything they are able to swallow. Insects, arthropods and small reptiles, such as skinks, make up the majority of their diet. At the zoo, our kookaburras eat hopper mice, crickets and mealworms. Mouse pinkies and extra bugs are offered in addition to the adult diet during chick-rearing. Our kookaburras like to tenderize their meat. They can be seen dropping their snacks from the tallest branch in the exhibit to the floor. Splat! Then they do it again, until the meat is nice and soft.

A kookaburra’s beak is very strong, used to catch prey and dig at termite mounds. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

10. They have their own theme song.
Whether you grew up in Australia or Timbuktu, chances are you’ve heard of or even sung the kookaburra song. Written in 1932 by a music teacher from Melbourne, Marion Sinclair, the song became wildly popular with children worldwide and is still popular in nursery schools and around campfires.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh, Kookaburra!
Gay your life must be

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Eating all the gum drops he can see
Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra!
Leave some there for me

Clearly, kookaburras are very awesome birds. We have two kookaburras on display in the zoo's Australasia exhibit.  The female is named Tanami, after a desert in Australia. She hatched on April 7, 1991 and arrived at Woodland Park Zoo in November 2000. The male is named Murray, after a river in Australia. He hatched on May 27, 1999 and arrived here in February 2002. Their diet at the zoo consists of mice, earthworms, and meal worms, but their super special treat is snake!

Lead zookeeper at the zoo’s Australasia unit, Beth Carlyle-Askew, tells us that when staff have to meet and hold a conversation in the service area near the kookaburras, the birds  will often start laughing and the keepers just have to wait since the kookaburras are so much louder!

If you show up early to the zoo one day, come sing the kookaburra song and you might even be lucky enough to hear their amazing cackle as these birds wake up the rest of the zoo!


j.e.silverstein said…
I LOVE to visit the kookaburras--and I always sing the song when I visit, even if it's quietly under my breath. They always make me smile. :-)