In Britain we are accustomed to seeing the idyllic scene of a kingfisher holding a tiny fish in its beak, perched on a ‘No Fishing’ sign. Iridescent colours sparkling in the morning sunshine. But if we head to the land Down Under we find that not all kingfishers are such delicate gems. Australia boasts the largest member of the kingfisher family – the Laughing Kookaburra.
As a child, I had seen kookaburras in a zoo. My great memory of them being my mum and nan, standing by an aviary waiting for the bird to ‘laugh’. As it let out its raucous cackle my mum and nan would collapse laughing. Those moments stay with you forever.
What I hadn’t realised until I moved to Sydney, Australia, was that these birds, as well as being birds of the bush, could also be seen around town. I hadn’t been living there for long when I had my first urban encounter. I walked to the bus stop by a small park for my morning commute, when I heard the cackle that I had not heard since childhood, back in that zoo. I looked up in astonishment to see a plump kookaburra perched on top of a light post above my head.
The kookaburra gets its name from the Aboriginal word of the Wiradjuri people, of the area now known as New South Wales, ‘Guuguuburra’. It is said to refer to the sound of human laughter.
The kookaburra unleashes its famous call just before sunrise, which has led to it being nicknamed The Bushman’s Clock. In aboriginal legend it is the call of the kookaburra that alerts the people of the sky that it is time to light the great fire (the sun) to warm and nourish the earth.
Despite the birds engaging and disarming laughter, the kookaburra is a fierce predator and an opportunistic scavenger. Feeding on a diet of pretty much anything that moves that they can fit in their beak, the kookaburra keeps watch from a perch above, before swooping down to catch its prey. Regular meals include lizards, snakes, frogs, crayfish and even small birds and mammals. It is not uncommon to see an Australian sat on a bench flicking balls of minced beef or pet food to a grateful glutton.
The kookaburra is a robust bird. A solid kingfisher that hits a perch hard as it lands. Adult birds can grow up to 45 cm (18 inches) in length, weighing in at up to 455 grams (16 oz). Captive birds have been recorded as living for 20 years.
The feisty bird in these photographs was relaxing in the morning sunshine in a small park south of Sydney. I walked over slowly and started snapping photographs. The kookaburra looked at me with utter disdain. I lowered the camera and approached a little closer, then closer still. This wild bird showed not one bit of concern. Finally, I reached up and gently stroked its back. The kookaburra hopped round to face me, gave me a look of disbelief that this idiot human could be so presumptuous as to stroke it without asking. It lashed out at me with its dagger-like beak but quick reactions meant I escaped with a mild flesh wound. No doubt about it, I deserved it!
Originally inhabitants of the eucalyptus forest of the east coast of Australia, the kookaburra is one of those birds that has created its own success story. Despite suffering the same habitat loss as many of the fauna that it evolved alongside, it has thrived and remains listed as ‘Least Concern’.
A few days before leaving Australia, while traveling in northern Queensland, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the considerably more elusive Blue-winged kookaburra. As exciting as this unexpected sighting was, it is the good old, common or garden Laughing kookaburra that I miss. Its laugh, its curiosity and its bad attitude made for a delightful incidental wildlife encounter.
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