In 1938, the feature film Tarzan and the Green Goddess contained a call from the Laughing Kookaburra even though Tarzan’s adventures occurred in Africa where there are no kookaburras; but the bird came to represent jungle calls in various movies. The call is heard in The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), Cape Fear (1962), The Lost World: Jurassic Park and (1997), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and others.
Native to eastern Australia and introduced to Tasmania, New Zealand, and western Australia, the Laughing Kookaburra is among the most well-known of all Australian birds. The name kookaburra comes from an Aboriginal language word guuguubara, imitative of the bird’s call.
The Laughing Kookaburra is the largest of all kingfishers, the female at 18 inches in length, but their foraging habits are typical of kingfishers – perching on a branch and waiting for suitable prey to appear. They eat mice and other small mammals, large insects, small birds, and snakes, with their four-inch bill. Most prey are snatched from the ground but occasionally taken in flight. Small prey are swallowed whole but larger prey such as rodents are beaten against the ground or a branch to soften them. Snakes up to three feet long are grabbed by the neck, beaten against a branch, and swallowed head first. One of the reasons Laughing Kookaburras have been introduced to areas outside of their native range is because of their snake-eating habit. Kookaburras close to human activity have learned to forage for food scraps from picnic tables and trash bins. They will occasionally snatch food from a person’s hands and will often accept proffered scraps of processed meat but even then beat it against a branch before swallowing.
Although the Kookaburra’s usual habitat is open eucalyptus forest, it is often seen in parks and gardens in suburban areas as well as farms along roads with trees and fences. They are fairly sedentary, moving only short distances within their local habitat.
Kookaburra pairs are monogamous and supposedly mate for life. Nesting usually occurs in the hollow of a tree, but occasionally the pair burrows into a termite nest, mud cliff, haystack, or nest box. The same nest may be used for several years. The pair is typically accompanied by four or five offspring from the last brood and live together as a family group. The family protects, feeds, and broods the newly hatched chicks.
So why does the kookaburra laugh? To establish territory. They live in small family groups, laughing at any time of the day, though it is most frequent at dawn and dusk. The males might start the sound and the rest of the family group joins in. While a lot of it might sound the same to us, sounds are different within any individual family. The sounds made by one group resemble each other and are different from other groups of kookaburras. Their laugh fills the forest with raucous laughter, a truly Australian experience for the human visitor.