Laughing Kookaburra

Laughing Kookaburra

Dacelo novaeguineae Order: Coraciiformes Family: Alcedinidae 

Overview

Laughing kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family and are a dynamic species that can be presented in a variety of educational forums. They have several natural behaviors that can be demonstrated during programming, including flight, calling, and prey stunning. The laughing kookaburra SSP is also very willing to work with ambassador requests, which makes this species a sustainable choice as an addition to an ambassador group.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Kookaburras are native to open woodlands and eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia; however, they have also been introduced to western Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.  Kookaburras have adapted well to living within human proximity and can be found in populated suburban and agricultural areas as well.

Longevity

Median life expectancy in the native habitat is 11-15 years; MLE in human care is 15-20 years.

Ecosystem Role

As a hunting bird, kookaburras play an important role in controlling small animal populations.

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

The Laughing Kookaburra SSP suggests a minimum habitat size of 8’ x 10’ x 7’ per bird; however, size can vary depending on available opportunities during programming and enrichment to display natural behaviors.  

  • Zoo Atlanta: Their kookaburra is housed in an outdoor mew with windows (year-round). 
  • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra is housed indoors in a large macaw-size stainless steel parrot enclosure. The bird is often allowed to free-fly during daily servicing of the area, and demonstrates a flight behavior in show programming.
  • Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information 

  • Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
  • Kookaburras are tolerant of cold weather. With access to a shelter with a heat source, and afforded protection from wind and blowing snow/rain, kookaburras can be housed outdoors down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. However, back up housing should be available in cases where the kookaburra demonstrates signs of cold-related stress, or if low temperatures are predicted for a prolonged period of time. One must also consider that if there is a significant difference in temperature between the temporary and primary housing, that the bird’s ability to move back outside may be delayed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, special care should also be taken with temperatures over 90 degrees, such as misters, fans, and additional shade.
  • Kookaburras housed indoors seem to do well with temperatures within typical human comfort ranges, as well as normal work-day light cycles.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Their kookaburra is provided with a heat lamp and windbreak when temperatures fall below 45 degrees. The bird is brought indoors if nighttime temps will be below 25 degrees for 2 or more nights in a row.
  • Substrate
    • Substrate such as mulch or leaf litter over natural earth or cement with proper drainage is recommended.
  • Social Housing/Colony Management
    • Kookaburras are social birds and breeding pairs are often housed together on exhibit. However, housing options for any ensuing offspring must be considered.
    • Maintaining a family group can be challenging as older offspring will likely eventually challenge the parents for dominance.
    • Maintaining separate family groups or breeding pairs within visual distance of each other can also be stressful for the birds as they will be on constant patrol of their territory.
    • Introducing same-sex birds is not recommended.
    • While exhibit kookaburras are often housed as pairs (and rarely as family groups), ambassador kookaburras are typically singly-housed, hand-raised, imprinted individuals.
  • Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
    • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra (housed indoors) is provided with a basking lamp (100 watt ZooMed ReptiBasking spot lamp; fixture is placed about 1’ above kookaburra’s head level), which he regularly uses. He is also provided with a water tub, which he uses for bathing.
    • Zoo Atlanta: Their kookaburra is provided a water tub for bathing, which is utilized regularly.

Diet Requirements

  • Diet in the Wild 
    • Kookaburras are opportunistic hunters and will take a variety of prey including lizards and snakes, insects, earthworms, crayfish, and rodents.
  •  Diet under human care
    • It is recommended that invertebrate food items be dusted with calcium.
    • Brookfield Zoo: The female housed at the Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo receives mice (defrosted), chicks (defrosted), and mealworms (live).
    • Zoo Atlanta: In addition to the food items listed by Brookfield Zoo, crickets (defrosted), chicken breast, and occasionally rabbit and quail are also offered.
    • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra eats adult mice, hopper mice, pinky mice, smelt, BOP, and a variety of invertebrates such as earthworms, mealworms, waxworms, crickets, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Veterinary Concerns

  • The beak can overgrow or scissor, but this can be easily corrected through regular coping of the beak.
  • When weight managing, the kookaburra appears to be able to slow its metabolism in times of “food shortages”, so be very cautious if trying to reduce weight.
  • See the IAATE position statement on Food and Weight management for more information on this practice.

Enrichment & Training

Enrichment

  • Behavioral Relevant Information
    • Kookaburras spend their day scanning for prey and are opportunistic feeders, so most successful enrichment programs will encourage this behavior.
    • In particular, younger kookaburras will also engage with various inanimate objects, so enrichment items that promote investigation and manipulation are also well-received.
  • Environmental Enrichment 
    • Perching changes
    • Substrate changes
    • Location change of basking lamp
    • Basking lamps of different temperatures
    • Water tubs of varying size and depth 
    • Misters/sprinklers
    • Opportunities to spend time outside for birds housed indoors
  • Behavioral Enrichment 
    • Many store-bought parrot toys will be investigated, especially ones with bells!
    • Remove bird from holding, hide food items throughout holding, reintroduce bird to holding
    • Free-flight opportunities
    • Chances to observe other animals 
    • Auditory enrichment (i.e. other bird calls)
    • Training sessions
    • Retrieving food items from objects such as Kongs, cardboard boxes/tubes, under frisbees, crumpled newspaper
    • Live fish hunting
    • Mealworms/waxworms scattered in hay/straw/shredded paper (be aware of potential ingestion concerns)
  • Schedule 
    • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra receives enrichment a minimum of 3x week.
  • Other Enrichment Resources 
    •  

Training

  • The Laughing Kookaburra SSP does support the use of jesses for ambassador kookaburras as a means of flight management. The SSP recognizes that the use of jesses comes with inherent risk to any bird, not just non-raptors. The SSP promotes the importance of proper staff training in the use of jesses, that jesses be removed when the bird is in its home enclosure; and that jessed kookaburras be stoic in temperament so that jesses are not tested with any frequency.
  • The Laughing Kookaburra SSP does not support wing clipping as a means of flight management for ambassador kookaburras.
  • The IAATE (International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators) position statement on jesses is to not use jesses on non-raptors. http://iaate.org/pdfs/PositionStatement_Tethering.pdf
  • Behaviors Trained
    • Small pieces of reinforcement on a fixed schedule are useful for training voluntary step up to hand, scale, and kennel, as well as jess application if jesses are used.
    • Kookaburras can be trained to call on cue and demonstrate the prey-stunning behavior.
    • Kookaburras can also be trained for calm behavior while on hand, with or without jesses
    • Zoo Atlanta: Their kookaburra is trained for flight demonstrations and is utilized on hand in outdoor settings.
    • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra flies to various stations in the theater; reinforcement at the different stations is variable.

Other

Individual Identification

  • In general, female kookaburras are slightly larger than males and have less blue coloring on the wings. Females also tend to lack the blue patch of feathers on the rump.  
  • The lower beak of juvenile birds remains black until about 4 months of age. Juveniles also tend to have darker chests.

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Largest member of the kingfisher family, but doesn’t eat a lot of fish
  • Highlight the similarities between the kookaburra and U.S. native kingfishers
  • Educate on the differences between carnivorous bird adaptations
  • Kookaburras are impacted by nesting cavity competition from non-native starlings, as are many other species where starlings have been introduced.
  • Kookaburras can become acclimated to humans in populated areas of their habitat, even taking offered food scraps. This point can correlate to many other species that are considered “nuisance” animals due to human behavior.
  • Domestic dogs and cats will hunt kookaburras, which can be related to the many songbirds killed by both pet and feral cats.
  • Kookaburras are successful because of their opportunistic nature, both in habitat use and prey selection. This correlates back to animals that more successfully adapt to human presence tend to survive and be more prolific.
  • Kookaburras suffer from insecticide/rodenticide poisoning, as many predators do.

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Kookaburras are not endangered, but as with almost all animals in Australia, they are protected by strict wildlife laws. The largest threat to their population comes from habitat destruction and/or fragmentation.
  • Time will tell how the recent fires in Australia will affect kookaburra populations.

Interesting Natural History Information

  • The crop of a kookaburra is low, between its legs, instead of below the neck as in most birds. This is likely because kookaburras eat their (often large) prey whole.

Did you know…

  • The Kookaburra song was written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair for a contest being held by the Victorian Girl Guides. Gum tree is another name for Eucalyptus tree, and bush refers to land outside of developed areas in Australia which are often covered in scrub and bush. Cannot speak to how/why monkeys made it into the song since they are not native, nor have been introduced to Australia. You can listen to the song here. The singer is wearing a cork hat (it’s an Australia thing, look it up!).
  • Noisy early morning and evening choruses have earned the laughing kookaburra the nickname “bushman’s clock”.
  • The word “kookaburra” comes from the Wiradjuri Aborigine word “guuguubarra”.
  • Australians chose the kookaburra as the mascot for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

Handling & Presentation Tips

  • Depending on the temperament of the bird, some kookaburras will accept food offered in a bowl held by an audience member.
  • An on-cue vocalization is always a huge hit, especially if the entire call can be captured.
  • The prey stunning behavior is popular, but be aware that the use of actual food items can sometimes be met with mixed reactions from audience members.
    • Zoo Atlanta: They are currently training their kookaburra to bash a rubber snake in order to get this behavior on cue. She sometimes will bash her reinforcers during shows, but not reliably. The goal is to add this behavior to her show routine.
    • Brookfield Zoo: The bashing of mice and chicks always catches the attention of nearby guests and provides opportunities to interpret. Since the Hamill Family Play Zoo exhibit is intended for young children and their families, we have had a few instances of guests being upset that their child saw something they considered to be graphic. We have also had distressed guests rush over to staff and report that the bird is eating its baby (when she is fed chicks). We look at all of the above as opportunities to interpret and educate.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Their female kookaburra gets seasonally territorial in her mew with keepers whose relationship is not as strong. As a result, eye protection is worn when training inside her mew, and she is trained to station below eye level before a keeper enters her space. She has never shown any aggression during shows.
  • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra flies to various stations in the theater, and ends with a flight over the audience (the closer the better!) back to the trainer on stage.
  • Akron Zoo: With no change in diet, their male kookaburra shows seasonal fluctuations in his weight (weight starts to increase in August/September, reaches its peak in January, and starts to decrease in February/March). These changes can affect his food motivation for programming behaviors.

Use Guidelines

  • Use parameters vary greatly depending on individual bird and type of use. Kookaburras presented in show segments will likely be able to do 2-3 performances each day, but will be limited by food motivation and diet reinforcement allotted. Kookaburras held on hand for pathway chats may need longer breaks and fewer uses each day.
  • Appropriate usage should always be determined by assessing individual bird behavior; handlers should be well-trained in recognizing signs of stress.

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • Flight-trained kookaburras can be trained to land on the arm of a program participant; participant may hold a bowl with reinforcement, or reinforcement can be delivered by trainer.
  • Flight-trained kookaburras can be trained to fly through a hula hoop held by a program participant, or fly over the heads of the audience.
  • Program participants may be able to deliver the cue to start a kookaburra calling.
  • It is not likely that an ambassador kookaburra would be accepting/comfortable with tactile interaction from an audience member.

Transportation Tips

  • Ambassador birds who travel in perched kennels should be positioned with the kennel perch perpendicular to the vehicle wheel axle.
  • Transports can be standard Vari Kennels with a built-in natural wood perch, or a carpet/turf-covered wooden dowel.
  • Akron Zoo: Their kookaburra did not acclimate well to being in a Vari Kennel, so they moved to using a wire dog crate to give him more visibility, which greatly improved the bird’s comfort level while traveling. This kookaburra also does not like his carrier being covered.

Crating Techniques

  • Kookaburras can be trained to voluntarily enter the kennel.

Temperature Guidelines

  • In general, extra caution should be taken when temps are below 40 and above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Of course, circumstances must always be considered as a bird in direct sunlight can overheat at temperatures lower than 90 degrees.
    • Handlers should be well-trained in the signs of stress of their bird.

Acquisition Information

  • The Laughing Kookaburra SSP is cooperative with requests for ambassadors
  • Mark S. Myers, Curator of Birds, Woodland Park Zoo; Laughing Kookaburra SSP Coordinator mark.myers@zoo.org 

Resources

  • The Laughing Kookaburra Ambassador Animal Guidelines can be found here 

Contributors and Citations

  • Zoo Atlanta
  • National Geographic
  • San Diego Zoo
  • Akron Zoo
  • Brookfield Zoo 

Comments from the Rating System

  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Excellent on hand, even better if call is on cue. Ours is phenomenal.

Top Photo Credit: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Tacoma, WA