Let's Talk About: Kookaburras and kingfishers

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

Probably no bird at the National Aviary gets as much individual attention as the laughing kookaburra, who lives in his own enclosure in the vestibule between the Tropical Forest exhibit and the Atrium. He is entertained all day long by person after person and group after group trying their best to incite him to "laugh." The kookaburra's raucous laugh truly is one of the great sounds in nature, and it is fun (and funny) to hear it, especially "live."

But it isn't just the vocalization that's amazing. It's the kookaburra's feather-perfect performance of his loud cackling call -- his head thrown back, beak pointed skyward, and feathers all aquiver -- that makes it a real show. Try as visitors might to persuade him, our "Giggles" will ordinarily "lol" only when he feels like it -- just often enough to ensure that throngs of admirers continue to do just about any goofy thing in the hope of tickling his funny bone.

The bird's funny name, kookaburra, comes from "Guggubara," an imitative name for the bird in Wiradjuri, an aboriginal Australian language. Most of us know its name because of the Australian nursery rhyme from grade school about the bird that "sits in the old gum tree."

There are five species of kookaburras (also known as tree or wood kingfishers), and all of them are found either in Australia or New Guinea. There are more than 90 species in the family of birds that includes the kookaburras -- just one species, the belted kingfisher, occurs in Pennsylvania. Most of the world's kingfishers and kookaburras live in Asia, Africa and Australia. Kookaburras are the most terrestrial of all the kingfishers; consequently, their diet includes a wide variety of insects, worms, lizards and small mammals and birds but very rarely fish.

With descriptive names such as "lazuli," "ultramarine," "malachite," "red-backed," "blue-capped," "chestnut-bellied" and "yellow-billed," it is clear many of the world's kingfishers are very colorful. But, what the mostly brown-and-white laughing kookaburra lacks in color, it more than makes up for in volume (and not only of his voice). Weighing in at a pound (454 grams) or more, the laughing kookaburra is the largest species of kingfisher in the world. By comparison, our native belted kingfisher weighs less than 200 grams. Incredibly, the world's smallest member of the family, the African pygmy kingfisher, weighs just 10.4 grams, or about the size of a chickadee.

If you've never seen a laughing kookaburra, come to the National Aviary this summer and meet our "Giggles" -- just trying to make him laugh is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

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