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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)

Activity Cycle

(Cooper et al. 2008)

  • Kookaburras make most of their calls each day before dawn (Keast 1985)
  • Active during the day (diurnal); roost for an average of 12 hours a night
  • In wild, remain roosting longer when weather is unfavorably wet or cold
  • Reduce basal metabolic rate significantly at night to conserve energy (Buttemer et al. 2003)
    • Body temperature at night is up to 9.1°C (16.4°F) lower
    • Also use huddling behavior while roosting to stay warm
    • Most birds (like owl) with low nighttime metabolism and temperatures also have low values during the day; kookaburras' metabolism and temperatures in daytime are much higher
      • Wild kookaburras elevate body temperature in daytime by generating their own heat; they don't wait for the sun to warm them up
    • Such an extreme variation in body temperature is an example of heterothermy (fluctuation in temperatures seen in animals that undergo hibernation or a daily torpor)
      • Heterothermy is more common in mammals than in birds (Geiser et al. 2006)
    • Birds in managed care do not undergo such temperature fluctuations, presumably because (Geiser et al. 2006):
      • Their food supply is steady and predictable; energy conservation is thus less important
      • They may not feel secure enough to enter a largely unresponsive state of torpor

Social Behavior

Complex social relationships

  • Breed in nuclear family groups with a monogamous pair assisted by up to six helper-birds (Legge & Cockburn 2000)
  • Roost communally at night (Cooper et al. 2008)
    • Juveniles may roost separately from adults (Higgins 1999)

Movements and dispersal

Territories

  • Territories range from 16-244 ha (39.5-603 acres)
  • Larger groups have larger territories

Migration

  • Kookaburra do not migrate (Higgins 1999)

Dispersal

  • Female helpers often leave their group during the first year (Legge 2004)
    • Females will usually immediately join another group, filling a vacancy with a dominant, breeding male
    • Occasionally a male and female from different groups will make a partnership and establish a new territory of their own
  • Male helpers typically leave later, after an average of two seasons (Legge 2004)

Territorial Behavior

  • Unlike other kingfishers, kookaburras are territorial year-round and are also resident ("sedentary") (Schodde & Tideman 1997)
    • Birds are careful to honor territorial boundaries (Parry 1970)
    • In one experiment by a researcher, a kookaburra would not cross into a neighbor's territory even to grab food tossed across the invisible line (Parry 1970)
    • Much energy is expended in complex, boundary-marking displays by the whole group (see below, Displays)

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

  • Kookaburra chicks display significant aggression from the moment they hatch; in studies near Canberra, Australia (Legge 2000c, 2004):
    • Chicks use the sharp downturned tip of their upper beak to attack nestmates; this hook is absent by the time the chick fledges
    • 33% of nests with two or three young had chicks killed by nestmates (siblicide)
    • Other species of birds that experience this type of aggression have siblicide rates over 90%
    • Factors creating conditions for siblicide:
      • First and second chicks hatch close together in time (fight to establish dominance)
      • When these two eggs are of similar size, siblings fight to establish dominance
      • Where a male chick is born first, a female second (male's initial dominance from birth order quickly challenged by faster-growing larger female)
      • When the group lacks a male helper (females are poor helpers, chicks not as well provisioned by females)
    • An underlying reason for siblicide is female's physical condition at time of laying
      • Eggs don't begin developing until the female begins sitting on them (incubating)
      • Females in good condition can begin incubating each egg as it is laid; they don't need to keep hunting between egg-laying days
      • Delay of incubation until all the eggs are in the nest produces eggs that hatch close in time - a hyper-competitive situation
    • Levels of aggression decline with each day as clear dominance patterns are established
  • Aggression between fledglings is common in the form of "sparring" (Parry 1973)
    • Opponents grab each others' bills
    • Twist bodies back in forth to throw opponents off balance
    • Serious injury rare

Communication

Displays

  •  Aerial displays in ritual defense of territory (Higgins 1999) (Parry 1970)
    • Trapeze flight
      • A defense perch is occupied near the boundary, in view of a similar perch across the boundary in neighbor's territory
      • A bird swoops from the perch to a nearby tree in its own territory, lands, and returns
      • A second bird may begin to swoop as the first bird returns; they pass in mid-air like trapeze artists
      • Following this display, the birds may pause to allow birds in the neighboring territory to do the same display
      • Alternating swoops to a tree and back may continue for as long as 30 minutes
      • Much loud calling (by the the rest of the group) may accompany these displays
    • Circle flight
      • One bird flies above trees
      • Makes quick dash into neighboring birds' territory
      • Flies in large circles around neighboring birds
      • Much loud calling by the whole group ensues
  • Agressive posture threats, then actual physical attacks are used to rid a territory of an intentionally or accidentally invading kookaburra (Parry 1970) (Higgins 1999)
    • Wings held down with rump exposed
    • Head and upper body thrust forward
    • Feathers made sleek
    • Tail wagged up and down
    • Vigorous attack and chase of intruder may follow
  • Alarm posture (Higgins 1999):
    • Body lifted off perch
    • Bill opened
    • Feathers on crown raised or plumage on back is sleeked
    • Head may be turned from side to side
    • May call also, depending on nature of threat

Vocalizations        

  • A laughing chorus by two or more birds
    • Occurs at dawn or dusk, often in response to another group (Woodall 2001)
      • Also call on moonlit nights and before and after solar eclipses (Higgins 1999)
    • Vocalization studies suggest the sounds made by a group resemble each other and are different from an outside group (Baker 2004)
    • Chorusing helps a group advertise its claim to a territory (Baker 2004) (Legge 2004)
      • A larger group makes a louder chorus, perhaps signifying a stronger claim
    • Has five elements (Woodall 2001:
      • "Kooa"
      • "Cackle"
      • Rolling - "ooo-ooo-ooo" repeated for 2 seconds
      • "HaHa" - loudest element; lasts 2-5 seconds and is used before attacks
      • Gogo - by male is loud "go-go-go"; by female is lower-pitched "gurgle"
      • Hear a laughing kookaburra call
  • Blue-winged kookaburras' vocalizations sound like "barks and hiccups" (Legge 2004)
    • Much less varied than the laughing kookaburra repertoire

Locomotion

  • Terrestrial locomotion (Legge 2004)
    • Feet are relatively weak
    • When nesting in tree hollow, parents prefer to build the nest space at the same level as opening for ease of entry and exit
  • Flight
    • Relatively slow flying
      • Kookaburras investigating road kills are vulnerable to car strikes

Interspecies Interactions

  • Gliders and opossums are primary predators on kookaburra eggs (Eastman 1970)
  • Quolls, goannas, and snakes may take chicks (Legge 2004)
  • In a study in Queensland, Australia, many species besides kookaburras depended on tree hollows for either nesting, shelter, or roosting sites (Moloney et al. 2002):
    • 13 species of mammals
    • 63 species of birds
    • 23 species of bats
    • 35 species of reptiles and amphibians
  • Other avian predators in kookaburras' ecosystem in New South Wales, Australia included (Zanette & Jenkins 2000):
    • Currawong, butcherbird, magpies, ravens

Calling to Stake a Claim

Laughing kookaburra making "laugh" with bill open

Kookaburras call as a group to advertise ownership of a territory.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Baker (2004)
Buttemer et al. (2003)
Cooper et al. (2008)
Geiser et al. (2006)
Higgins (1999)
Keast (1985)
Legge (2000c, 2004)
Legge & Cockburn (2000)
Moloney et al. (2002)
Parry (1970)
Schodde & Tideman (1997)
Zanette & Jenkins (2000)

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