Kookaburras outside our bedroom
Our alarm clock goes off well before the sun rises over the sea. Taken from our bedroom window, you can hear the sea, insects (katydids and crickets, the males stridulate, making the sound by scraping one forewing against the other) and the laughing kookaburra, with a lot of what sounds like giggling, two young birds in the family are learning to sing.
Listen out for the beautiful Pied Butcherbird at 3 minutes in, and at 6 minutes some lorikeets and other birds. At 8.30 minutes cicadas kick in from the forest beside us, then at 10 the butcherbird’s other three note call, followed by the chuckle of a Lewins Honeyeater and the sound of trucks on the highway with other birds joining in. At the end some Rainbow Lorikeets rush past.
The kookaburra’s famous ‘laugh’ is a territorial call; they are monogamous and live in close family groups that don’t migrate but stay in fixed and fiercely defend their territories. The female lays 1-5 eggs in a tree hollow between September and January, and raise the young with the father and siblings. Siblings usually stay for a few years before leaving to find their own territories being old enough to breed and defend a territory.
The natural range of Dacelo novaeguineae extends from Cape York down the East coast to South Australia and inland along the river systems. They were introduced into Tasmania just over a century ago and into the south of Western Australia just over twenty years ago. They are kingfishers who prefer dry land to water.
They are intelligent birds, have started to come onto our balconies when we are there, realising we are no threat, perhaps hoping for a handout, if people have fed them before. They like our house, it has perches to view a garden with plenty of cleared ground where they search for food and is next to a forest with old trees with holes large enough to nest in and with cover for roosting. They develop an intimate knowledge of their territory.
According to one Aboriginal legend, the kookaburra’s morning chorus is a signal for the sky people to light the great fire that lights and warms the earth by day.
You may have heard them call loudly while watching a scene:
- in the Amazon rainforest (Raiders of the Lost Ark);
- in the East Indies (of the Swiss Family Robinson, wrecked on their way to Sydney, but filmed on the island of Tobago, West Indies);
- in the Himalayas around the Palace of Mopu, near Darjeeling, (Black Narcissus);
- on the Borgo mountain pass, Transylvania, still the main route today through the eastern range of the Carpathian Mountains (Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula); and most famously,
- in the thick jungles of Africa’s dark interior as Tarzan swung into the 20th century from his estate in British East-Africa,
- somewhere in the cannibal infested South Seas (Black Adder, ‘Potato’, series 2).
‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree / with a toothache bad as can be.’
Birdsong is a territorial warning, an invitation for sex, or just music and can be all at the same time. It is also a signal of fitness, only strong birds can invest the energy needed for loud, continuous singing and evade any predator that are listening. The Superb Lyrebird sings the most complex birdsong of all and the loudest.
“Whereon dyd lyght/Byrdes as thycke/As sterres in the skye,/Praisyng our Lorde/ Without discorde./With goodly armony.” John Skelton, ‘The Harmony of Birds’. In 1917 at Arras, being shelled in the trenches Edward Thomas kept a diary and noted all the birds he heard: “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw”; “Linnets and chaffinches sing in waste trenched ground”; “Larks singing over No Man’s Land.”
“Birdsong is one of the most distinctive sounds from the natural world and gives us a warm glow inside when we hear it. We’re all attuned to the need to eat five fruit and vegetables a day or take a 30-minute walk. Taking the time out to listen to five minutes of birdsong every day could be as beneficial to our well-being.” Peter Brash, ecologist with the English National Trust. Apparently recordings of the dawn chorus eases needle phobia and tension among children (study at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool).