Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Kookaburra Close Encounter

Our surprise arrived suddenly ... or maybe pleasant shock is a better description. It all began during a visit to the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. I'll digress for a minute to say that Taronga Zoo is a great place to visit with it's beautiful setting and collection of animals. There is a very, very large aviary with a wonderful group of large Psittacines (parrots) ... especially the Cockatoos that Australia is so famous for. Some of these aviary birds were so friendly that they flew right over to where this parrot lover was standing so I could really get a close up view and chat with them for awhile. What can I say ... it was wonderful! The Taronga Zoo also has some unbelievable views of Sydney and the harbor. So it's a great place to visit just for the view in case the animals aren't enough reason to visit. Of course, they were the draw for me. Taronga also has some interesting educational shows about Australia's native species so the visit really couldn't have been a better experience.

Back to the surprise I mentioned. While we were having lunch it arrived in the form of a Kookaburra. There we were, my brother and I, having a burger and fries at a small patio table. All of a sudden a wild Kookaburra flew right down to our table (not over a few inches away from my hand) and relieved us of one of our french fries. Needless to say, we were delightfully startled. And it was fun to watch him devour the fry on a nearby tree branch. Then he decided he needed another fry and returned for a second one. The people at nearby tables were as entertained as we were. It was pretty obvious that this wasn't the bird's first people-food snack. But for these American visitors his desire for fast-food made our day.

Some have described the Kookaburra as a plain-looking bird. Perhaps so, as it's back and wings are usually brown. However, in my opinion it isn't dull or uninteresting at all. In fact, I find them very attractive. The Kookaburra's overly large head (as compared to the rest of it's body) is creamy white with a brown eye stripe and very large beak. The bird is approximately 18 inches long (45 cm) and weighs close to a pound. Kookaburra's get all the moisture they need from their food so drinking isn't necessary. (Although I wonder how our visitor felt after eating the high salt content of those fries!) Their nests are built in hollow trees or even a termite mound.

Kookaburras are fascinating birds. They are members of the Kingfisher family and are famous for their racous "laugh" ... thus being nicknamed the "laughing Kookaburra". Many people around the world are familiar with it thanks to Hollywood films in which the laugh is the background in most every jungle whether the setting is in the Amazon or Africa (the bird is not native to either of these places though ... but that's Hollywood for you). In lieu of having sound to share in this weblog, their call can be described as beginning with a low 'oooo' chuckle that increases to a high "ha ha ha" and then back to a low chuckle. There isn't much doubt that it would be instantly recognizable upon hearing it. The Kookaburra's loud laughing call travels far through the forests where others of its kind hear it. The call is used both in courting rituals and for claiming territory.

But the Kookaburra call is not the only interesting feature of the bird. It has also adapted to it's environment in some unusual ways. And, as evidenced by our zoo encounter, Kookaburras have even adapted to humans with some even becoming tame enough to be handfed.

This bird is indeed a survivor ... living in the woodland and open forests of Australia and also Tasmania were it has been introduced. The Kookaburra is a terrestial Kingfisher. Unlike most Kingfishers, it doesn't catch fish but rather it's diet consists of lizards, mice, small birds, and an occasional snake. One of it's unusual behaviors is the way it kills prey. Kookaburras have been observed taking their catch high into the air to drop it, or they smash in on a tree branch. SIDEBAR - When we lived in Florida I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) preparing it's meal of fish by repeatedly bashing it against our boat dock. That Belted Kingfisher landed on the dock daily as he cruised his territory. His visits (infrequently accompanied by a mate) were so dependable that I watched for him everyday. It was an added bonus when he caught a fish from the dock and I was able to observe his eating behavior. I was told that Belted Kingfishers repeatedly smash the fish to break the bones to make it easier to eat. I don't know if that is true ... it may just be done to kill the fish.

Kookaburras mate for life and have an unusual parenting behavior. They breed from September to January laying pure white eggs about the size of a Bantam chicken. The clutch size varies from one to five eggs with two to four eggs being common. Kookaburras lay eggs a day apart and incubate them between 24-26 days. After the young are reared and fledge they often stay around the nest to help the parents with the next clutch of babies. This behavior contrasts dramatically with the majority of birds who leave the nest once they are fledged to search for territory and mates of their own. When a Kookaburra family-system of chick rearing has been established it is usual for a second clutch of chicks to be raised in one season. In this instance, the offspring of prior clutches will take over the raising of the first brood of the season while the parents attend to the second. In a Kookaburra family group all the birds develop a brood patch which is a bare spot of skin on the breast used to transfer body heat to incubate the eggs. There have been documented cases where the helper birds spend more time incubating eggs than one of the parents. Most helpers are males who assist with nesting duties as well as territory defense. If a parent dies often a helper will take the place of the missing mate. SIDEBAR - Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) have been studied and shown to use the same cooperative breeding method.

Having a close enounter with a wild bird gave me a great reason to learn more about the species. Spending a little extra time delving into the facts about birds has proven time and again that birds have fascinating stories to tell. It's one reason I'll continue to keep learning about as many species as this lifetime allows.

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