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The Kookaburra
Author: Edward Sorenson
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eBook No.: 1305471.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2013
Date most recently updated: September 2013

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The Kookaburra
Author: Edward Sorenson


Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal
Wednesday, December 17, 1902


The Kookaburra (the word is spelled in various ways, such as
"Kukuburra," "Gogoburra") forms one of an important quartette that have
been associated with Australian literature from its inception, the
other three being the Curlew, Mopoke, and Emu. Though the latter is
generally regarded as our national bird, the Kookaburra is equally
worthy of notice; indeed, it may be said that, in certain parts, at
least, it has claimed more interest from bushmen and visitors as one of
the world's feathered oddities. Its striking appearance alone commands
attention, while its "laugh" is even more remarkable. Forbearance on
the part of bushmen has made it fearless, and it is a constant
companion at all bush homes. Never very shy, it has always been a
conspicuous object to settlers, even apart from its remarkable and
irresistible cry. In earlier times it was known as the "Settler's
Clock," from a belief that its joyful paeans were vented regularly at
morn, noon, and dusk, being quiescent through the heat of the forenoon
and the wane of the afternoon. That belief has long been shattered. The
Kookaburra laughs just when the fit takes it, particularly when
excited, which occurs at any hour during the day. A wounded bird makes
a demoniacal row, which will bring all others within hearing into the
neighbouring trees, and these at once set up an echoing cackle that is
repeated again and again. I have also noticed, when a bird alights
alone in a tree, it will generally laugh loudly, repeating at intervals
until joined by its mate. A bird in one tree will also answer a brother
in an adjacent tree, the refrain being caught up by others in the
distance, in the same manner as cockerels will answer one another at
night. Again, when two come together on a limb, they express their
approval in a "hearty laugh," and when several converge from divers
directions, it is mutually accepted as an occasion for general

The Kookaburra is the giant of the kingfishers, more than half of which
family belong exclusively to Australia. With the exception of the
brilliant blue-and-white, which frequents rivers, creeks, and lagoons,
the best known members, unlike the usual order of kingfishers, have no
love of the water, and do not live on fish. The blue and white or
sacred kingfisher is also known as the Van Dieman's Land Jackass,
though it is never seen in Tasmania. The one other well distributed
member is the bush kingfisher, which, like the Kookaburra, nests in
hollow trees, often miles away from water. It has also a fondness for
the wart-like ant nests that are built high up on the trunks of dead
trees, into which it pecks a circular hole and lays its eggs. I have
often watched these little fellows gamely fighting the huge "goanas"
that encroached upon the precious precincts of the nest. It is
identical with the mangrove kingfisher of northern and far north-western
New South Wales.

Compared with the brilliant colours of the other members of the group,
the plumage of the common Kookaburra is dull and commonplace. The upper
parts vary from brown to chestnut brown, and from white to dirty white
below: while the wings are relieved by dashes of shimmering blue. The
tail feathers are fairly long, fan-shaped when open, and barred or
mottled with brown. It has a peculiar habit of throwing the tail up,
even to an incline over the back, on alighting on a limb. It has also a
sort of crest, which is in evidence when the bird is excited, when
catching its prey, or at such times when several are "holding a

Perched on a limb, it looks much bulkier of body than a crow, though
not so long; stripped of its feathers, however, it is remarkably small,
ridiculously so in comparison with the size of its beak. Though
possessed of considerable gripping power, the legs and toes are
somewhat weedy; its flight is short and heavy, lacking the wing-skill
of most bush birds. Its great strength lies in the beak, as I have had
reason to know more than once when handling wounded ones. They vary
considerably in colour, and even in size, in different parts of the
country, the snow white and white and chestnut being not uncommon. The
Kookaburra of Eastern Queensland is a beautiful bird, greyish-brown on
the back, with a broad, light-blue band near the tail, and varying
shades of blue on the wings. The breast is of a light-greyish hue,
closely streaked with brown. It is known as Leach's Laughing Jackass.

Though not a water-haunting bird, it is not a frequenter either of the
dry country, being totally unknown in the north-west of New South
Wales, and favouring mostly the eastern portion of Australia. In the
west and north-western parts of the country we find only an allied
species known to science as "D. cervina."

The Kookaburra's usual food consists of grubs, worms, frogs,
caterpillars, small lizards, and small snakes. It will also pick up
fresh meat, and I have known them to haunt a slaughter yard, though it
will not touch a dead beast. On account of its snake-killing
reputation, it was protected by Government in many parts of the
country, and looked upon as a sacred bird by bushmen. It was averred
that no snake could approach a hut while a Kookaburra was about. This
however has gone the way of many other old time beliefs. The big black
snake may bask in the sun with impunity, though a score of Kookaburras
may be watching it, and venting their cachinations overhead. A reptile
will always excite them, but they are chary of tackling one, except the
small green or whip snakes.

I saw a pair killing one of these snakes once on the Richmond River.
One of the birds at first was perched on a low limb. Its mate picked up
the snake, carried it towards the top of a high tree, and dropped it.
As it neared the ground, the other bird darted out suddenly and caught
it, carrying it high into the air when it was again dropped. Then the
first bird swooped down and caught it. This was repeated several times,
the birds rising with a heavy fluttering motion of the wings, the beak
downwards, evidently guarding against the doubling movements of the
enemy. Finally, one of them carried it to a limb; the other joined it
with a triumphant laugh; and then commenced a lively tug-of-war. One
moment the snake would be hanging over the limb, perceptibly
stretching, and a bird hanging under each side with closed wings.
Presently, one would let go, and the other would fall with a sudden
recoil of snake, followed by a short, startled squawk. The battle was
renewed on the ground; then again in the air; and the last I saw of
them was a wild flutter in the distance, mixed up with several others
in a general squabble.

I have witnessed the same interesting combat between them over a
chicken. The Kookaburra is far more partial to that diet than it is to
snake. Though it will kill small snakes, like the Yankee who ate crow,
it doesn't hanker after them. But let it once taste chicken, and it
becomes as great a pest to the poultry-yard as the hawk and crow. For
this reason many settlers now shoot it at sight. I saw a farmer at
Woram (N.S.W.) shoot as many as a dozen in one day without going ten
yards from the door. They are among the easiest birds in the bush to

On a farm on the Clarence River I often watched a pair of Kookaburras
following the plough, and picking up the white grubs and worms. A
farmer in the same locality told me that a pair was always waiting for
him on a stump when he went to work in the mornings, and as soon as the
plough started they would fly to the furrow and follow it. Occasionally
when the ploughman didn't turn up as usual they would linger for hours
about the ground, waiting for their breakfast to be unearthed, now and
again relieving their feelings in a noisy duet.

The Kookaburra is also known as the Laughing Goburra and the Laughing
Jackass. The latter is the most common. How this name originated is not
very clear. There is nothing about the bird to suggest a jack or an
ass. Barton ("Australian Physiography") suggests that the name is
derived from a French word meaning to giggle. One bush version is that
its cry in the distance was mistaken for the bray of an ass by a new
chum named Jack. His mates afterwards so mercilessly chaffed him about
his ass that the bird became generally known as "Jack's Ass." The best
version I have heard has an aboriginal origin. A blackfellow, struck by
some resemblance in a hilarious miner to the laughing bird, called him
"Chaka-Chaka." The miners subsequently alluded to the birds as

This was soon shortened to Chakas, and that in turn corrupted to

Whatever the origin, Jackass to-day, when applied to a silly person,
conveys the same meaning as "an ass." In a different sense, we have
also the term, "From jackass to jackass," meaning from daylight till
dark. It might be remarked that no name fits the bird better than
Kookaburra, the first two syllables of which it seems to continually
utter in its so-called laugh. In giving vent to this, its head is held
up, the huge mandibles wide apart, pointing skywards, and its wings
continually move in little flutters against its side. It would seem to
require some little exertion to properly modulate the cackle; when it
is over, the bird gazes down with a quaint aspect blended of apathy and

In "A Sketch of the Natural History of Australia," it is claimed that
Jack is one of our "incomparable mimics." This he decidedly is not.
During many years' experience I never heard one attempt to imitate any
foreign sound. His "laugh" embodies all the notes peculiar to him, and
when the laughing fit has passed, there is no more sedate or sober-looking
bird in the bush than the Kookaburra.


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