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The laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) is a carnivorous bird in the kingfisher subfamily Halcyoninae. Native to eastern mainland Australia, it has also been introduced to parts of New Zealand, Tasmania, and Western Australia. Male and female adults are similar in plumage, which is predominantly brown and white. A common and familiar bird, this species of kookaburra is well known for its laughing call.
The laughing kookaburra was first described in western knowledge systems by French naturalist Johann Hermann in 1783, its specific epithet novaeguineae refers to New Guinea. For many years, it was known as Dacelo gigas.
The species was previously known as the laughing jackass and giant kingfisher. Its current name comes from Wiradhuri, an Aboriginal language now effectively extinct. It is also known as a Nagaburra due to its call in the earlee mornings waking people up from their content slumber.
Some were also introduced to New Zealand between 1866 and 1880, but only those released on Kawau Island by Sir George Grey survived. Descendants of these individuals are found there today. Remnants of this population have been seen on the New Zealand mainland near Matakana.
Individuals were released at Perth, Western Australia, in 1898 and can now be found throughout southwest Australia.
The laughing kookaburra is a stout, stocky bird about 45 cm (18 in) in length, with a large head, prominent brown eyes, and a very large bill. The sexes are very similar, although the female is usually larger and has less blue to the rump than the male. They have a white or cream-coloured body and head with a dark brown stripe across each eye and more faintly over the top of the head. The wings and back are brown with sky blue spots on the shoulders. The tail is rusty reddish-orange with dark brown bars and white tips on the feathers. The heavy bill is black on top and bone-coloured on the bottom. It is possibly the largest kingfisher, and generally the heaviest.
Recorded near Pemberton, Australia
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The name "laughing kookaburra" refers to the bird's "laugh", which it uses to establish territory amongst family groups. It can be heard at any time of day, but most frequently shortly after dawn and after sunset to dusk.
One bird starts with a low, hiccuping chuckle, then throws its head back in raucous laughter: often several others join in. If a rival tribe is within earshot and replies, the whole family soon gathers to fill the bush with ringing laughter. Hearing kookaburras in full voice is one of the more extraordinary experiences of the Australian bush, something even locals cannot ignore; some visitors, unless forewarned, may find their calls startling.
The kookaburra is also the subject of a popular Australian children's song, the "Kookaburra".
Kookaburras occupy woodland territories (including forests) in loose family groups, and their laughter serves the same purpose as a great many other bird calls—to mark territorial borders. Most species of kookaburras tend to live in family units, with offspring helping the parents hunt and care for the next generation of offspring.
Kookaburras hunt much as other kingfishers (or indeed Australasian robins) do, by perching on a convenient branch or wire and waiting patiently for prey to pass by. Common prey include mice and similar-sized small mammals, large insects, lizards, small birds and nestlings, and most famously, snakes. Small prey are preferred, but kookaburras sometimes take large creatures, including venomous snakes, much longer than their bodies.
During mating season, the laughing kookaburra reputedly indulges in behaviour similar to that of a wattlebird. The female adopts a begging posture and vocalises like a young bird. The male then offers her his current catch accompanied with an "oo oo oo" sound. However, some observers maintain that the opposite happens - the female approaches the male with her current catch and offers it to him. Either way, they start breeding around October/November. If the first clutch fails, they will continue breeding into the summer months.
They generally lay three eggs at about two-day intervals. If the food supply is not adequate, the third egg will be smaller and the third chick will also be smaller and at a disadvantage relative to its larger siblings. Chicks have a hook on the upper mandible, which disappears by the time of fledging. If the food supply to the chicks is not adequate, the chicks will quarrel, with the hook being used as a weapon. The smallest chick may even be killed by its larger siblings. If food is plentiful, the parent birds spend more time brooding the chicks, so the chicks are not able to fight.
Interaction with humans
Laughing kookaburras are a common sight in suburban gardens and urban settings, even in built-up areas, and are so accustomed to humans that they will often eat out of their hands. It is not uncommon for kookaburras to snatch food out of people's hands without warning, by swooping in from a distance. People often feed them pieces of raw meat.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Dacelo novaeguineae". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- "The Scientific Name of the Laughing Kookaburra: Dacelo Gigas (Boddaert) v. Dacelo Novaeguzneae (Hermann)" (PDF). CSIRO. CSIRO Australia. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
- Kookaburra: the Australian Laughing Jackass aviary.owls.com
- San Diego Zoo's Animal Bytes: Laughing Kookaburra San Diego Zoo
- New Oxford American Dictionary
- "Laughing Kookaburra". San Diego Zoo. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
- "Laughing Kookaburra". National Geographic. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
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