Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Scientific name:
    • Dacelo is an anagram of Alcedo (another genus of kingfisher) (Legge 2004)
  • Common name:
    • Laughing Kookaburra, for distinctive calls of "cacophonic chorusing" (Legge 2004)
    • Other names include the "bushman's clock" and "breakfast bird," because it calls at dawn (Legge 2004)
  • The correct scientific name is D. novaeguineae, although the species is often referred to as D. gigas.
    • D. novaeguineae was the name given earlier in the same year as D. gigas (Woodall 2001)
  • Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Fry et al. (1992) used Dacelonidae for this family but Halcyonidae (or Halcyoninae if it is considered a subfamily) has been used subsequently (Moyle 2006)

Evolutionary History

  • Quasisyndactylus was a small bird with a long, flattened beak that lived some 40-48 million years ago in Messel, Germany (Mayr 2005).
    • Photo of the Quasisyndactylus fossil
    • Like all modern kingfishers, the three forward-facing toes of Quasisyndacylus are attached for much of their length (an example of "syndactyly")
    • This fossil is the earliest known ancestor of motmots, todies, bee-eaters and kingfishers
  • Kingfishers probably evolved in the northern hemisphere, according to DNA analysis (Moyle 2006)
    • Studies based on modern species distributions had earlier suggested origins in rainforests of Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea (Woodall 2001)
  • Fossil kingfishers also found in:
    • Wyoming, U.S.A. and France 30-40 million years ago (Eocene-Oligocene) (Olson 1976) (Becker 1986) (Mourer-Chauviré 1995)
    • Australia 5-25 million years ago (Miocene) rocks (Boles 1997)
  • Tree kingfishers such as kookaburras (Halcyonids) are widespread in old world tropics today, especially in Australia and New Guinea but also in Africa (Moyle 2006)
  • Todies and motmots are the closest relatives of the kingfishers (Moyle 2006)

Cultural History

  • Australian aboriginal tribes have numerous legends about kookaburras (Reed 1998; Legge 2004)
    • Many legends explain the origins of kookaburras' calling at sunrise: a Creator assigned kookaburras the task of waking all the other animals
    • Other legends attribute kookaburra calls to their mean-spirited and derisive laughter at others' misfortunes
    • Bidjigal aboriginals near Sydney say Kookaburra and Snake were once good friends until Snake ate an egg of the kookaburras; after that, kookaburras ate snakes
  • Kookaburras' snake-killing prowress endeared them to Australians as they farmed their new territories; they are common in poetry, song, illustration (Legge 2004)
    • The kookaburra poem, written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair, became a popular children's round still sung today
    • In 2011, the Australian band Men at Work lost a copyright infringement lawsuit brought against their use of the kookaburra song in a flute riff in their 1980s song Down Under (Smith 2011)
  • Australians chose the bold and confident kookaburra as the mascot for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Coraciiformes (kingfishers, hoopoes, bee-eaters, hornbills, rollers)

Family: Alcedinidae (kingfishers)

Genus: Dacelo (Leach, 1815)

Species: Dacelo novaeguineae (Laughing Kookaburra; Hermann, 1783)

Subspecies: D. n. minor (Robinson, 1900)
Subspecies: D. n. novaeguineae (Hermann, 1783)

Source: Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017); Gill and Donsker (2019)

Page Citations

Boles (1997)
Fry et al. (1992)
ITIS (2011)
Legge (2004)
Mayr (2005)
Moyle (2006)
Reed (1998)
Robinson (2005)
Sibley & Ahlquist (1990)
Smith (2011)
Woodall (2001)

SDZWA Library Links