Cuckoo for Kookaburras


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

The kookabura has a maniacal, infectious laughing call

The kookabura has a maniacal, infectious laughing call

For the past few days I’ve been camping in Southeast Forests National Park, a gorgeous place in the mountains a couple hours’ drive inland from the southeast coast of Australia. I’ve had the campground completely to myself, far from any busy roads, nested in silence and solitude.  

My “office” is a shaded picnic table and my home is the tent just a few yards away. It’s the middle of a warm February day—midsummer in this part of the world—with the sun blazing down between patchy white clouds.  

There’s a broad green meadow in front of me, densely surrounded by tall Eucalyptus trees. And pouring out from the forest edge is an absolutely preternatural sound—a chorus of intense, frenetic, chattering, high pitched almost maniacal laughter. This has been going on intermittently all day, but I can’t help stopping to listen every time it happens.  

The voices belong to Australia’s most famous and most iconic bird–the kookaburra. I suppose it’s one of the world’s best known natural sounds—often heard in old jungle films and modern Australian movies. Something inside apparently commands us to mimic this voice once we’ve heard it: koo koo koo kaa kaa kaa koo koo!  

Kids are especially good, or uninhibited falsetto adults. But no human can match the machine gun speed, grandstand volume, staccato resonance, and trampolining pitch of a real kookaburra.  

Like the whiteness of snow, a kookaburra’s voice can only be described in reference to itself. There just isn’t any other sound like it.  

And this campground in the mountains of southern Australia has easily the most spectacular kookaburra outpourings I’ve ever heard. I’d guess ten or fifteen kookaburra families claim territories around this meadow and in the nearby forest, each with 2 to 10 members, so there might be 100 kookaburras sounding off sunrise and sunset.  

There’s a brief silence after each group’s performance and then another bunch takes the stage. The effect is magnified in this particular meadow because every voice resonates between the encircling forest walls.  

Back and forth they go as the dawn brightens into day…a glorious rampage of sound, heard nowhere else in the world except Australia.  

Imagine an entire continent that starts every day, all year round—from the cities to the farmlands to the outback—with this vast, thronging, synchronized, uproarious chorus of laughter. I wonder if this has something to do with the Australian people’s pleasant, easygoing temperament.  

For me, the kookaburra chorus is a guaranteed charge of euphoria before breakfast.  RN

Mark Bethka