Why does kookaburra laugh and 17 even more fascinating facts

Colin, the character in our book “Kevin the kangaroo that couldn’t hop” is a bird of kingfisher family called laughing kookaburra. Kookaburras live in Australia where they perch in large trees. Do you want to find out more about these special Australian birds and why they are so special?

Welcome to 18 facts about laughing kookaburras!

1. What does a kookaburra look like?

Kookaburra is the largest of kingfisher family and reaches up to 43cm in length (17 inches) with 8-10 cm long beak (approx. 4 inches). They have thick neck and strong neck muscles, caused probably by the way they kill their pray. They’re not so colourful as other kingfishers – their feathers are grey-brown, but it help them blend in with the environment and it’s more difficult for the predators to spot them.

kookaburra sitting on a branch
Image by Rebecca Tregear from Pixabay

2. Where does a kookaburra live?

Laughing kookaburras inhabit eucalyptus forests in Eastern Australia, but they have also been introduced by humans to Western Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. Although typically found in forests, kookaburras also live in residential areas and can be found in parks, backyards and gardens.

kookaburra on a perch

3. Why are kookaburras called laughing kookaburras or jackass kookaburras?

Their call sounds like loud human laughter. It’s a mix of cackling ‘laughter’, chuckles and hoots, and it’s one of the best known sounds of the Australian bush.

Did you know that their call sounds so exotic that it has appeared in numerous American blockbuster movies, one of them is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.

The opening scene of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark is located somewhere in South America, what is a kookaburra doing there??? 😊

4. Why are kookaburras also called the ‘bushman’s clock’?

As kookaburras can be heard very early in the morning they are called the ‘bushman’s clock’.

5. Why do kookaburras laugh?

The Aboriginal legend says that their morning laughter is a signal to the sky people to light the great fire (the Sun) to warm the Earth.

Another one says that when the Sun rose for the first time the god Bayame ordered the kookaburra to laugh very loud each morning to wake up people so they wouldn’t miss the beautiful sunrise.

Other research suggests however that they laugh to establish territory.

Their loud ‘koo-koo-koo-koo-koo-kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa-kaa is often heard in chorus. It starts with one kookaburra giving a low chuckle and then throwing its head back in a raucous laugh. If a rival tribe of kookaburras replies, soon the whole family gathers and laughs together in reply.

6. How big is a kookaburra's territory?

Kookaburas’ territory can vary from 16 to 244 hectares depending on the size of the family and availability of prey. A family of kookaburras will stay in one territory for many years and the members will respect other families and not enter a neighbouring territory even when they see food behind the invisible border.

7. How do kookaburras mark their territory?

As I mentioned before the family of kookaburras laughs together in chorus to mark their territory, and the laughter differs from one family to another. However that’s not all they do. They also make ‘aerial displays’ to defend their territory:

Trapeze flight

The kookaburra sits on a perch next to its territory’s boundary. There is a similar perch on the other side of the border. The kookaburra swoops from the perch to the nearby tree in its territory, lands and then returns. A second kookaburra then swoops from the same perch as the first one returns and they pass in mid-air like trapeze artists.

Following this display the kookaburras may stop to allow the kookaburras from the neighbouring territory to do the same.

The swoops might continue for up to 30 mins.

Circle flight

The kookaburra flies above the trees and makes a quick dash into a neighbouring territory, then flies in large circles around the neighbouring kookaburras.

Both displays are accompanied by loud calling (laughing).

8. How long does a kookaburra live?

In captivity or in favourable conditions kookaburras can live even more than 20 years. They can mate at the age of 12 months.

9. Do kookaburras live alone?

Kookaburras are not only monogamous (i.e. have partners for life), but they also have the same home/nest each year! They build their nests in tree hollows big enough to fit an adult bird or excavate holes in arboreal termite mounds.

Courtship starts with the male feeding the female for approx. 6 weeks before she lays her eggs. The resulting 1-4 white eggs must be kept warm for 24 days.

Kookaburras have big families; adult children don’t leave their parents but help to care for their younger siblings. Usually one family of kookaburras consists of parents and up to 6 adult children.

All members of one family develop brood patches – a bare space on their breasts with lots of blood vessels to keep the eggs warm. They also help with feeding and defend their parents’ territory.

kookaburra flying into the nest
Photo by Geoffrey Moore on Unsplash

10. What does a baby kookaburra look like?

Baby kookaburras are born naked and blind, but they have a very sharp hook at the end of their beak.

The first chick that hatches may turn on their younger siblings, bite them, or even kill them if there is not enough food. The third chick has only 50% chance of survival!

The chicks are ready to learn how to fly 33 to 39 days after they hatch, but they still need the family to feed them for the next 2 months. They leave the family after four years to establish their own.

kookaburra chick
Photo by Stephen Tafra on Unsplash

11. What do kookaburras eat?

Unlike other kingfishers, kookaburras don’t eat fish! But they are also not picky eaters either, they eat whatever is available. Their diet includes insects and worms, but also snakes, lizards, frogs, rodents or even small mammals.

They are often seen sitting on tree branches waiting for their meal. When the prey appears, they dive down and grab it with their strong beak. Small prey is eaten whole, the bigger ones are killed and tenderised (!) by bashing them against a rock or tree branch, or by dropping them from mid-air onto the ground.

Their crop is not below the neck as is usually the case in birds but between their legs, which makes sense as they often eat their prey whole.

When they sit on a perch they can keep their head perfectly still whilst their body sways with the branch.

kookaburra eating mouse
Image by Alexa from Pixabay

12. Do kookaburras drink water?

Kookaburras don’t need to drink water as they take all their required nutrients from food. However they do like to bath!

13. Do kookaburras have predators?

Older kookaburras are vulnerable to airborne predators like owls and eagles, or to ground ones like feral cats and foxes. Their chicks fall prey to goannas and snakes.

Kookaburras are carnivores and can’t resist a road-kill when they see it left on the ground, but they are also slow-flying birds and sometimes get hit by oncoming vehicles as when taking-off from roads as they often don’t fly fast enough to avoid them!

The biggest danger however to their existence is the destruction of eucalyptus forests where they nest and feed.

14. Do kookaburras communicate between each other?

Kookaburras have shortened ‘koooaa’ sound when they communicate with the members of their own family and other shorter calls for courtship, raising an alarm or when begging for food.

Calls made by individual members of one family resemble each other and are different from those of an outside group.

15. Where the name ‘kookaburra’ came from?

The name came from an Aboriginal word of Wiradjuri people ‘Guuguuburra’ which refers to the sound of human laughter.

16. What is called the Australian nursery rhyme about the kookaburra?

It’s called: Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree

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 gumdrops he can see.
Stop, kookaburra, stop, kookaburra
Leave some there for me!

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Counting all the monkeys he can see.
Stop, kookaburra, stop, kookaburra,
That’s no monkey, that’s me!

17. Can a kookaburra be a pet?

Although they can be easily tamed kookaburras, they shouldn’t be kept as pets. They are very temperamental, loud, require a lot of space and a complex diet.

Also, remember that they are called the ‘Bushmen’s clock’ for a reason! They would wake you up EVERY morning, VERY early, with their VERY loud laughter.

a girl and a kookaburra
Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

18. Can you feed kookaburras?

Kookaburras should not be fed by people unless it’s done professionally for those of them living in captivity. It could damage their health and would likely not to provide all the nutrients they require.

Kookaburras eat their prey whole so they are getting ‘the whole package’ including much needed calcium.

Check out our children’s book “Kevin the kangaroo that couldn’t hop”, where you can meet Colin the Kookaburra! 😊


Sleeping habits of kookaburras Animals.mom.com

Kookaburra – The Laughing Kingfisher Incidentalnaturalist.com

Kookaburra Britannica.com

Laughing Kookaburra Birdlife.org.au

Laughing Kookaburra Nationalgeografic.com

Laughing Kookaburra Australian.museum

Laughing Kookaburra Animals.sandiegozoo.org

Why Does the Kookaburra Laugh? Animals.howstuffworks.com

Are Kookaburras Laughing or Screaming? Natureaustralia.org.au

Laughing Kookaburra  Wildlife.vic.gov.au

 Kookaburras (genus Dacelo) Beautyofbirds.com

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology Ielc.libguides.com

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