Lessons in laughter from the kookaburra

Education | Ocean Park 11 May 2021

When was the last time you had a good laugh? You might have already forgotten. Yet, try to appreciate the surroundings; there is always a wise lesson we can learn from mother nature and its many amazing life forms. Kookaburras are a good example.

Meet the laughing kookaburra - or rather hear it. This curious bird, found in the woods of Australia, makes a cackling sound similar to that of humans, ranging from a low chuckle to belly roars.

Widely known as the "bushman's alarm clock," the laughing kookaburra bursts into "laughter" at dawn and dusk. Could it be a reminder to face the new day with a light heart and to conclude any kind of day with a good laugh?

There is a beautiful aboriginal legend in Australia that says the kookaburra's call is a signal to the sky people to start the daily fire that lights the Earth.

Nature is nonetheless more practical than philosophical. The laughing kookaburra's signature "laughter" is actually a territorial call to warn other birds to stay away. It is often sung in a chorus with other kookaburras in the vicinity. This symphony of cackles is regularly performed in the early mornings and evenings to mark the birds' turf.

Notwithstanding its hilarious voice, the laughing kookaburra is a well-developed bird. It has a large square head, a powerful long beak and a short, strong neck. Its lower plumage is generally off-white and brown-striped on the back and the wings, with a distinctive dark brown eye-stripe across the face.

Measuring up to 43 centimeters and weighing 500 grams, the bird is the largest in the kingfisher family. It feeds mostly on insects, worms and crustaceans such as crabs. Sometimes it will also eat small snakes, lizards, frogs, small birds or rodents.

An expert hunter, it usually adopts a wait-and-pounce technique, taking up a high vantage point. When a kookaburra spots its prey, it drops straight down from its perch onto the prey, its wings back and beak ready to snatch. Its manner of feeding is quite specific too. The kookaburra consumes the entire body of small prey and kills larger prey by battering it against the ground or a tree branch. To help soften its food, the bird bangs and bashes them before gobbling down.

Laughing kookaburras mate for life and retain a stable social system where only the dominant male and female in a family group will breed. Both parents incubate the eggs and take care of the little ones. Parenting is not restricted to the parents; older siblings pitch in too, as they share parenting duties and assist in protecting the territory.

The woodland habitat of the laughing kookaburra is threatened by grazing and inappropriate fire regimes. The removal of trees also means fewer breeding and feeding grounds.

Human use of pesticides to kill insects impacts the kookaburras as well, as they will eventually take in chemicals from the contaminated insects that become prey.

The daily laughter of laughing kookaburras is perhaps our wake-up call to begin actively restoring our ecosystems. For a start, we can support organic farming by consuming food and products organically grown.

Come meet the amazing laughing kookaburras residing in Ocean Park's Adventures in Australia.

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June 2021

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