Meet Australia’s “Laughing Bird”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Australia
IN TODAY’S tense times people need to be reminded of the value of a good laugh. Australia is fortunate in having such a reminder in the most distinctive call of one of its unique inhabitants, the kookaburra. In a recent survey it was voted Australia’s most popular bird. In size it is a little larger than a pigeon, and it is found nowhere else in the world, except in zoos.
Its “laugh” often commences with a lone bird uttering a couple of low-pitched snickers through an almost closed beak. This initial chuckle seems to signal other kookaburras in the vicinity, who immediately fly to where the first bird is perched. Then the group throw back their heads and a chorus of rollicking peals of “laughter” are sent ringing through the air. Because the individual birds “laugh” in varying keys and at a different pace, the combined effect is like the jovial atmosphere among a group of happy humans. Most people who hear the kookaburra “laugh” are pleasantly affected by this seeming show of infectious good humor.
While the “laughter” of the kookaburra can be heard at any time of day, it is especially heard at dawn or dusk. This has earned for the bird the name “settler’s clock.” To some the laugh sounds more like a bray, so they have dubbed the kookaburra “The Laughing Jackass.”
A recent study by an ornithologist says that the “laugh” seems to be connected with the territorial system among kookaburras. They occupy well-defined territories, in one area averaging about three acres (1.2 ha) per bird. Hence, a “family” with six birds could control about 18 acres (7.3 ha). Boundaries of these territories are established each year just before breeding commences.
So, the kookaburra’s “laugh” is actually a serious aspect of life, part of the warning system used by the birds to make known to others that they are encroaching on occupied territory. And the vocal warning is reinforced by flight patterns used by the birds as they patrol their territory boundaries.
A Family Way of Life
Family life is also a serious matter among the kookaburras. They like to build nest holes in a tree, using the same holes each year. When gouging out a new nest hole the kookaburra has been seen to launch himself from a nearby branch, drive his short strong beak into a termites’ mound and gradually chisel out a hole of sufficient size. Three or four eggs, pearly white and as large as a bantam’s egg, are laid directly onto the floor of the nest hole. Eggs are laid on successive days, and, after an incubation period of approximately 26 days, they hatch on successive days.
Investigations have revealed an unusual family way of life. While permanently mated pairs of birds usually occupy a particular territory, some territories accommodate other nonbreeding birds. These are called “auxiliaries.” When egg laying commences, it would be expected that the auxiliaries would leave to establish territories of their own. However, rather than leave, these birds actually share along with the parent birds in incubating eggs, as well as feeding and protecting chicks. In some cases, four birds were found busily helping the parent birds as carefully as if the chicks were their own. If one of the parent birds was killed in an accident or died, then an auxiliary would step in and assume a parental role. Some auxiliaries stayed for four years before establishing territories of their own. Both parents and auxiliaries were benefited by this “family” system of living. The parent birds, because they could devote more time to their own welfare; the auxiliaries, because they learned to defend a territory and also gained experience in raising a family.
Among the kookaburras there is a strict caste system, whereby members of families, both breeders and auxiliaries, know and show their place in the social pattern. A nonviolent, mildly aggressive form of behavior has been observed in this regard. Two birds would grasp bills and grapple and twist in a manner resembling “Indian wrestling.” Females competed only with females and males with males. Adult breeders always won in these tests of strength, while the oldest auxiliaries came next in the hierarchy of dominance. The youngest birds were at the very bottom of the ladder. They had to wait for a new batch of fledglings to appear before they could improve their social position.
Food and Survival
Although the kookaburra sounds as if it is laughing, safeguarding the area where it gets its food is serious business. The diet of the kookaburra consists of lizards, insects, small nesting birds and their eggs, rodents, crayfish, frogs, snakes and suchlike. Because of not possessing the talons or hooked beaks of the hawk and other predatory birds, the kookaburra depends on its strong neck muscles for killing and eating its prey.
However, the kookaburra is itself vulnerable to predators. For defense, it possesses a natural color camouflage. Also, in the event that hawks or other marauding birds pass overhead, the kookaburra freezes, points its beak at the would-be predator and swivels its whole body to follow the flight of the enemy bird until it vanishes. This defensive ploy is called the “stick pose,” the kookaburra looking like a stick to the overhead bird.
What really makes the kookaburra popular, however, is its “laugh.” Of course, not everyone likes him. After all, not everyone likes alarm clocks. And how could those who have had their goldfish pond raided or their chickens or ducklings devoured feel friendly toward the bird? Or who enjoys an early-morning rapping on the windowpane by the beak of this feathered fellow—as reminder to put out some breakfast for him? For he is a cheeky fellow.
However, despite this dark side of the kookaburra’s reputation, perhaps he does remind us humans of something. While the kookaburra itself does not have a sense of humor (this being a gracious endowment for mankind alone), the bird does remind us to exercise ours and laugh from time to time.