Lessons from Travels: Kookaburras

by Carl Strang

In northeast Illinois we have one kind of kingfisher. The belted kingfisher belongs to a large and diverse group of birds, however, and especially in the tropics one can find several species in the same area, usually forming a guild with a range of body sizes. Most kingfishers dive into the water to catch fish. In Australia live some species that are quite different.

Laughing kookaburra

The laughing kookaburra is a kingfisher high on the list of birds that visiting biologists and birders want to see. I also hoped to get a good recording of their famous odd, laughing choruses. In that second goal I was frustrated. At least in the season I was there, they were not very vocal. They had dawn choruses, and I enjoyed hearing them, but I was never close enough to get a good recording. On rare occasions when one called during the day, it finished before I could get out the digital recorder and microphone.

Once I watched a laughing kookaburra hunting. It was perched and looking down, like any other kingfisher, but beneath it was not water, but rather a brush tangle. I saw it dive into the brush and return to its perch a couple of times, but it was not successful. They reportedly eat insects and small reptiles.

It turns out there are two species of kookaburras, and I saw the second a few times as I explored the north central region of Australia.

Blue-winged kookaburra

The blue-winged kookaburra is a little smaller than the laughing, and appears to be more a species of moist forest areas. Its voice has a similar quality, but it calls in a different, less distinctive pattern.

Experiencing the diversity of related forms in other parts of the world is valuable in breaking down conceptual walls and assumptions. Kingfishers can hunt on land. So, what does the kookaburras’ job in northeast Illinois? We have few reptiles and large insects, so a kookaburra probably could not succeed. Generalists like crows, and raptors including hawks, owls and falcons (all of which also have Australian relatives), cover the tiny bit of ecological ground that a kookaburra would take in our part of the world.

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