Skip to Main Content
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