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Kookaburra: King of the Bush

Kookaburra: King of the Bush

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Kookaburra: King of the Bush

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Jun 10, 2004


Laughing Kookaburras are the largest kingfishers in the world, and Blue-winged Kookaburras are not far behind. Their size and distinctive shape and posture make them easily recognisable; their comical and personable characters make them readily memorable. They are able to live in a wide variety of habitats, and adapt to living around humans relatively well. This cheerful familiarity has caused them to figure prominently in the psyches and folklores of all peoples who have inhabited Australia.

Kookaburras live in family groups marked by the extremes of social behaviour. Whilst in the nest, chicks fight their siblings for dominance and food so aggressively that the smallest chick is often killed. In complete contrast, many adult kookaburras delay their own breeding in order to help their relatives raise young.

Kookaburra: King of the Bush provides a complete overview of kookaburras and their unique place in Australian culture and natural history.

Jun 10, 2004

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Kookaburra - Sarah S. Legge



The culture of kookaburras

Laughing kookaburras are the largest kingfishers in the world, and Bluewinged kookaburras are not far behind. Their size and distinctive shape and posture make them easily recognisable; their comical and personable characters make them readily memorable. They are able to live in a wide variety of habitats, and adapt to living around humans relatively well. This cheerful familiarity has caused them to figure prominently in the psyches and folklores of all peoples who have inhabited Australia. Two features of the kookaburra’s general biology have been particularly emphasised across cultures. First, their vocalisations are loud, intrusive and unmistakable, and have been interwoven into stories and common names. Second, all Australian peoples have recognised, fêted and overestimated the kookaburra’s ability to kill snakes. This chapter describes how these two features of the kookaburra were perceived by indigenous Australians as well as the country’s more recent settlers.

Aboriginals and kookaburras

Many Aboriginal legends explain the origin or key features of an animal’s ecology, especially if the animal is important to them in some way. The most obtrusive feature about a kookaburra (from a human standpoint) is its incredible vocalisation, and most Aboriginal stories focus on the association between the kookaburra’s cacophonic dawn chorus and the arrival of the sun each day.

The common thread in these stories is that during the early stages of the Dreaming the Earth existed in a kind of hazy twilight or even in darkness. After a while, proper days and nights were created. In some stories this was a decision taken by a Creator being. In other cases this change resulted from the events of yet another story: the sun was a giant, but unlit, woodpile in the sky. During a quarrel between Emu and Eagle (Eagle is sometimes substituted for another bird such as the Brolga), Eagle threw one of Emu’s eggs into the sky, where it struck the giant woodpile and set it alight, causing the first day of light and warmth. The spirits of the sky were so pleased by the effects that they decided to collect fuel for the woodpile every night, and light it again each morning. Unfortunately, many animals were sleeping through the daily lighting of the woodpile, which meant they had only a portion of the day left for their work, and they were also missing out on the spectacular display of dawn. The spirits commissioned Kookaburra to call just before dawn each morning, so that all the other animals would know when to wake up.

There are alternative Aboriginal stories concerning the kookaburra’s call, that emphasise its mocking quality. For example the following story comes from the Bidjigal clan, between Sydney and Wollongong. In the Dreamtime, Kookaburra was a serious bird, critical of other birds that did not follow her sober example. In particular, she singled out Cuckoo for censure, because of her habit of laying her eggs in the nests of others, thereby avoiding the responsibilities of parenthood. One day, however, Kookaburra was watching Cuckoo lay her egg in Eagle’s nest when Eagle arrived back and caught Cuckoo in the act. Furious, Eagle killed and ate Cuckoo. Kookaburra broke into uncontrollable laughter at Cuckoo’s misfortune, and to this day still laughs wildly at the mishaps of others.

Stories from other Aboriginal groups mirror this derisive theme, like of the Ngiyaampaa people (western NSW), where kookaburras broke into laughter when two little boys were inadvertently flattened by an enraged river goanna that they had been tickling. The Noongahburrah people (from the Narran River, NSW) have a story that tells how Goorgah, the iguana, went hunting with his two wives Moondai (possum) and Cookooburrah. They left Cookooburrah’s two young sons at the camp without water. While they were away, Cookooburrah’s older son visited the camp. When he found his younger brothers half-dead with thirst, he punished his parents by breaking open a goolahgool, which is a hollow tree that holds much water. The water flowed like a big, gushing stream. When Goorgah and his wives returned, they tried to cross the stream to reach their camp. Cookooburrah lost her footing, and called out to her little sons: ‘Goug gour gah gah. Goug gour gah gah. Give me a stick.’ Her sons only answered derisively: ‘Goug gour gah gah. Goug gour gah gah.’ Cookooburrah, Goorgah and Moondai all drowned.

The snake-killing potential of kookaburras is celebrated in another fable from the Bidjigal clan. In this story the Kookaburra and Snake were once close friends, but one day Snake ate some of Kookaburra’s eggs. The tell-tale bulges in Snake’s body gave the sorry tale away. In retaliation, Kookaburra killed Snake and ate him, and has treated all snakes the same ever since.

Recent immigrants and kookaburras

Early settlers to Australia arrived in the southeast, and therefore made the acquaintance of the Laughing Kookaburra before the Blue-winged Kookaburra. This has resulted in a greater variety of vernacular names for the Laughing Kookaburra. Settlers quickly noted the same association between daybreak and the Laughing Kookaburra’s cackling chorus as indigenous Australians, and came up with common names that were a reference to this predictable timing: ‘Alarm Bird’, ‘Breakfast Bird’, ‘Settler’s Clock’ and ‘Bushman’s Clock’. George Cayley (quoted in Gould) had a theory for the settler’s fixation with timekeeping in relation to kookaburras:

‘I have also heard it called the Hawkesbury Clock (clocks being at the period of my residence scarce articles in the colony, there being not one, perhaps, in the whole Hawkesbury settlement), for it is among the first of the feathered tribes which announce the approach of day.’

Other common names were also a tribute to the remarkable call, such as ‘Laughing Jackass’ (and its derivatives ‘Laughing Jack’, ‘Laughing Johnny’, etc.) and the name ‘Laughing Kookaburra’ itself. The term Laughing Jackass probably persisted most widely, and by 1871 it had been incorporated into ‘The Young Australian’s Alphabet’:

J is for jackass

A very strange bird,

Whose laugh in the forest

Is very absurd.

Another name, the ‘Ha Ha Pigeon’, is an interesting acknowledgement of both the kookaburra’s call, and also its edibility, since pigeons were thought to be an especially delectable type of bird. Some early accounts refer to the ‘Great Brown Kingfisher’ or the ‘Giant Kingfisher’, which of course is a reference to the Laughing Kookaburra’s taxonomic affinities rather than its call.

Like the Laughing Kookaburra, the Blue-winged Kookaburra also has loud, ringing, and utterly unmistakable calls. However, they have a more barking, chopping quality, and this is reflected in their common names: the ‘Barking’ or ‘Howling Jackass’. Other common names allude to their taxonomy or are more descriptive, like ‘Leach’s Kingfisher’, and ‘Fawn-breasted Kingfisher’.

The current popular generic name, ‘kookaburra’, is derived from the Wiradhuri language, which was spoken by people living inland of Sydney and the Blue Mountains, roughly between Mudgee and Hay, Gilgandra and Albury. The word only came into common usage by settlers in 1867, after Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth had breached the Blue Mountains in 1813. Although there may have been as many as 40 variations of the name spoken by different Aboriginal groups, most kept the basic onomatopoeic quality, and were recognised and reported in various settlers’ accounts. Different sources cite the original Wiradhuri name as being ‘cocopara’, ‘cucuburra’, ‘gogera’, ‘gogobera’, ‘guguburra’, or ‘kukuburra’. The Aboriginals of Botany Bay reputedly used the name ‘cuck’unda’, and names from other language groups include ‘akkaburra’, ‘arrangangg’, ‘gugurrgaagaa’, ‘gurgara’, ‘karkungoon’, ‘koaka’, ‘ngungana’, ‘tarakook’ and ‘wowook’. Language names that specifically refer to the Blue-winged Kookaburra are similarly onomatopoeic and therefore perhaps more staccato, for example ‘garrwukgarrwuk’, ‘garramben’, ‘orrolmb’, and ‘konkon’.

The kookaburra’s wild and unfamiliar calls were not always favourably received by early settlers: ‘…appalling as the ravings of a madman…and ends in a prolonged sardonic chuckle’. Captain Sturt (related by Gould) thought the kookaburra’s calls resembled ‘a chorus of wild spirits’, and that they were ‘apt to startle the traveller who may be in jeopardy, as if laughing and mocking at his misfortune’. This perception of a sarcastic quality in the kookaburra’s call echoes the flavour of some of the Aboriginal tales related above. Other early writers with a more sympathetic ear, such as W.F. Morrison in 1888, emphasised the larrikin aspect of the calls:

‘…a most hideous exhibition of the vocal organs…reminds one very much of the braying of an ass. When many of them are together they provoke laughter by the ridiculous tones they make in concert, ludicrous in the extreme, and contagious in effect.’

Once settlers got used to these ‘ravings’, they began noticing other attributes of the kookaburra, in particular (and like indigenous Australians) its snake-killing ability. For example, in 1872 C.H. Eden wrote:

‘At daylight came a hideous chorus of fiendish laughter, as if the infernal regions had been broken loose – this was the song of another feathered innocent, the laughing jackass – not half a bad sort of fellow when you come to know him, for he kills snakes…’

Source: National Library of Australia. nla.pic-an1133159

‘The Snake Destroyer, the Laughing Jackass’. Print from a wood engraving published in an illustrated Sydney newspaper, c. 1878.

This sentiment is seconded in another description, this time by C. Lumholtz in 1890:

‘Few birds of Australia have pleased me as much as this curious laughing jackass, though it is both clumsy and unattractive in colour…It boldly attacks venomous snakes and large lizards, and is consequently the friend of the colonist.’

The perception of kookaburras as ‘valiant snake-killers’ persisted strongly throughout the 20th century, as shown by the numerous comments and articles describing snake-eating incidents in Australia’s oldest ornithological journal Emu. Indeed, its reputation as a snake-killer was the justification seized upon by acclimatisation societies when introducing Laughing Kookaburras at the turn of the 20th century to several areas where they did not occur naturally, such as Western Australia and Tasmania (see Chapter 2). These introductions were ironic, because although kookaburras, given the opportunity, do eat snakes, in general snakes form only a very small part of their diet (see Chapter 3).

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