Goodbye to the Old Gum Tree: Kookaburras in Suburbia

The emu may be Australia’s avian representative on the national coat of arms, but it’s the kookaburra, with is its raucous laugh and cheeky grin, who arguably steals the show when it comes to birdlife in the land down under. Some may prefer the magpie, others may prefer the pelican, a fair number of people love the wedge-tailed eagle, and rainbow lorikeets are a perennial favourite. But everyone loves the kookaburra. And for good reason: Kookaburras are full of character. They’re my personal favourite.

Kookaburras don’t feature heavily in the early records of the British colony at Sydney Cove. Watkin Tench, whose journal constitutes an important primary source for our knowledge of the early days of British settlement in Sydney, writes nothing about them in his summary of the natural features of Australia. When it comes to birds, he’s obsessed with the cassowary, allocating five long paragraphs to them. But when it comes to kookaburras, he mentions them not at all, and one can conclude they’re subsumed in the line, ‘of other birds, the varieties are very numerous.’[1]

Yet kookaburras must have quickly made an impression on convict and officer alike for, as Sarah Legge points out, the loud, clumsy bird certainly managed to garner to itself a long list of nicknames, mostly related to its habit of issuing a long, cacophonous song – sounding much like mockery or laughter – in the mornings at sunrise and in the evenings at sunset: ‘Alarm Bird, Breakfast Bird, Settler’s Clock, and Bushman’s Clock.’[2]

Whatever the early settlers thought of kookaburras, today, they are embedded deep within the Australian psyche as an iconic symbol of national identity. The kookaburra is the mascot of our national men’s hockey team – one of only a handful of native birds to be honoured emblematically in Australian sport, magpies and sea eagles being two others. We sing about kookaburras in a song written by Marion Sinclair in the 1930s, that can easily be broken into rounds, and is frequently done so around a campfire. And Olly, a kookaburra, acted as one of three of our mascots in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Kookaburras are well recognised, but perhaps not well known. Their most obvious characteristics are the laugh and a cute, awkward appearance. But the most intriguing features of kookaburras aren’t the ones that are obvious, but are the ones that are less apparent – related to behaviour. For example, kookaburras are cooperative breeders, using a complex system of auxiliary helpers to bring up its fledgelings in a way that is reminiscent of extended families in humans. In any family of kookaburras, it’s only the breeding pair who mate and reproduce. The remaining members of the family – usually progeny of the mating pair from a previous season – help with rearing. This can include taking turns at incubation, bringing food to the hatchlings, and guarding the young after they’ve fledged.

Watching older kookaburras nurturing younger kookaburras is one of the great pleasures of the spring and summer season in Sydney. Everywhere you look in the suburbs of Sydney, you can see fledgeling birds – often high up in the trees, unsure of themselves – looking for guidance and care from an older sibling or parent.

Kookaburras are, I would therefore argue, a magical bird. They have captured the imagination of the people who have built suburbs next to their habitats. They’ve befriended us, bonded with us, and – at times – lampooned us. But although they’ve always seemed like a joke – a suitable jester for a country whose court is the bush – kookaburras are a complex, compassionate animal, worthy of deep consideration.


Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson

Sarah S. Legge, Kookaburra: King of the Bush

Veronica A. Parry, Kookaburras

Tim Low, The New Nature

[1] Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, Chapter 17.

[2] Sarah Legge, Kookaburra: King of the Bush, chapter 1.