By Robert Mulvihill, National Aviary ornithologist
This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.
In grade school music class many of us learned about a strange bird with a funny-sounding name — that merry king of the bush, who sat in the old gum tree, living life gaily, eating gumdrops, counting monkeys and, of course, laughing.
The laughing kookaburra is not an invention of Marion Sinclair, the music teacher from Melbourne, Australia, who wrote the iconic children’s song in 1932. It is one of four species of real birds, two of which occur in Australia (the other is the blue-winged kookaburra), and two in New Guinea (the spangled kookaburra and rufous-bellied kookaburra).
Kookaburras are classified along with some 90 other species in the avian family Alcedinidae. All of the other species in this family go by the common name “kingfisher,” in keeping with their habit of feeding mostly on aquatic prey.
Laughing kookaburras inhabit a range of woodland habitats in eastern Australia, from eucalyptus forests to suburban parks and gardens. They are classic “sit-and-wait” predators, perching patiently on an exposed branch and scanning the ground below for unsuspecting prey, including insects of all kinds, crabs and crayfish, snakes and lizards, small mammals and even fledgling birds: In fact, pretty much anything that moves that isn’t much bigger than they are is fair game. Kookaburras are equipped with a long, stout, dagger-like bill capable of firmly grasping and dispatching their prey.
Laughing kookaburras are, of course, famous for their cackling call, which, according to Aboriginal legend, was bestowed on them by the gods in order to usher in the dawn and awaken people and animals alike to each new day. Their loud calls enable kookaburras to keep in contact with one another when foraging in different parts of their large territory.
Laughing kookaburras are monogamous and will mate for life. They nest in burrows excavated in termite mounds or dead trees and stumps; sometimes in existing cavities and even man-made nest boxes. They usually lay two or three eggs in a clutch, devoting about four weeks each to incubation and nestling feedings, and providing an additional six weeks of post-fledging care.
Young kookaburras, especially males, often will remain in the natal territory for up to four years, serving as “helpers,” defending the territory against intruders and providing consanguineal care to successive broods of their parents’ young. This helps them learn valuable parenting skills and, more importantly, increases their inclusive evolutionary fitness by helping ensure the survival of siblings.
On Sept. 13-14 you can track down laughing kookaburras and a dozen other interesting Australian birds during “National Aviary Down Under: An Australian Adventure,” presented by AAA Travel (card-carrying AAA members receive a $4 discount on admission).
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