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Life in the air

“The Laughing Kookaburra, and as described by Sir Christopher, provides a telling example of how Australian species were redistributed”.

Peter and Andrea Hylands

September 27, 2022

Pre, colonial settlement in Australia, the natural distribution of the Laughing Kookaburra was as follows, Eastern Australia from central Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland, south through New South Wales to Victoria and westwards to the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Things were soon to change. The wonderful name of this bird has its origins from the Wiradjuri language, Guuguubarra (Central New South Wales).

Laughing Kookaburra

Naturalised Birds of the World

What follows are occasional extracts from Naturalised Birds of the World, Sir Christopher Lever 1987 (foreword by Sir Peter Scott), the work was published by Longman (Scientific & Technical). I was a director of Longman (established 1724 and Britain’s oldest commercial publishing house) for a long period.

The Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae, and as described by Sir Christopher, provides a telling example of how Australian species were redistributed, not only across the Australian Continent, but also to other countries. In the Kookaburra’s case, New Zealand is prominent. Mammals, often Wallaby and Possum species were also redistributed in this way and species thought to be extinct in Australia, have been ‘rediscovered’ somewhere else. Needless to say this redistribution of wildlife had the very significant potential of endangering the survival of the often vulnerable species that had existed successfully in the places to which the newly introduced species had been relocated.

Peter Hylands with Laughing Kookaburra, Victoria

Laughing Kookaburra redistribution in Australia

A large member of the Kingfisher subfamily, Halcyoninae (Tree Kingfishers), Laughing Kookaburras are the iconic bird species of the Australian bush because of their distinctive call. I will always associate the smell of gum leaves on a hot summers evening and the call of the Kookaburra. That is the Australia known by countless generations of Indigenous people.

“Kookaburras on the Australian mainland were successfully transplanted to the southwest of Western Australia and also to Kangaroo and Flinders Islands (off the coast of South Australia) and respectively in the Bass Strait and to Tasmania.
Serventy and Whittell (1951, 1962 and 1967) and Long (1972and 1981) traced the establishment of Kookaburras in Western Australia. The earliest release took place before 1896. Several hundred were obtained from Victoria by the Director of the Zoological Gardens in South Perth and from the state’s Acclimatisation Society, by whom the birds were apparently released in several places. Kookaburras were well established in several places before 1912, and by the 1920s were becoming fairly common between the Darling Range and the coast. By the mid 1960s the birds had spread into forested districts in the southwest from Albany and Bald Island in the south, northwards to Jurien Bay, 200 kilometres north of Perth. Beyond Moora, Bolgart and the great southern railway Kookaburras only occurred as occasional wanderers, but were, from time to time, reported further inland.
In January 1926 two pairs of Kookaburras were released on Kangaroo Island, their descendants known to have survived until at least 1969 and where some probably still remain.
According to Condon (1975) the Kookaburra had been transplanted from the mainland to Flinders Island. In 1902 McGowan released some Kookaburras in Tasmania where they had failed to become established three years later, others were successfully released in several parts of northern Tasmania and on Waterhouse Island off the north-east coast, from where they have spread to eastern and southern Tasmania".

Laughing Kookaburra redistribution to New Zealand

It is not only on the continent of Australia that Kookaburras have been introduced to places where they did not exist.

"New Zealand and according to Thomson (1922), the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society acquired two pairs of Kookaburras from a Mr Wilkin in 1864, but what became of them is unknown Thomson also says that in Station Life in New Zealand, Lady Barker states that on her voyage from Melbourne to New Zealand and on the Albion in 1865, one of her fellow passengers was travelling with a consignment of birds, chiefly Kookaburras or Laughing Jackasses, as they were known at that time. Again there is no record of what happened to them.
In 1866 and 1869 the Otago Society released four and two respectively in Silverstream, where they remained for a time, but eventually disappeared. In 1867 the Nelson Society imported some and a year later, the Auckland Society received one from a Doctor Stratford, but once more their fate is unrecorded. In 1876 and 1879, 14 and one Kookaburra respectively, were released by the Wellington Society, one was seen as late as 1885, but apparently none thereafter.
In the early 1860s Sir George Grey released some Kookaburras on Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf, central Auckland, where according to Thomson they had all died. In 1916 however Thomson was told that a few were still to be found on the east coast near Auckland, and Oliver (1930 and 1955) indicates that Sir George Grey's introduction was the only successful one in New Zealand, and that from Kawau, crossed to the nearby mainland coast where they were common in the late 1920s. By the mid 1950s the Kookaburras apparently had established in North Auckland from Whangarei to the Waitakerei Range and also on Kawau Island.
Wodzicki (1965) described Kookaburras as locally rare and Kinsky (1970) found them to be established on Kawau Island and on the adjacent mainland, principally between Auckland and Whangarei. Wanderers also sometimes seen on Little Barrier Island. Some may also occasionally arrive naturally as windblown vagrants from Australia".

Blue-winged Kookaburra

Blue-winged Kookaburra

The Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii lives in the sub-tropical and tropical woodlands of Northern Australia and is smaller than the Laughing Kookaburra and is distinguished from it by its blue wings and blue rump. The species is also present in the Torres Strait and New Guinea. The distribution of the two species overlaps in Queensland.

The breeding pair share the incubation of the eggs and subsequent feeding, which extends for one to two months, and are often assisted by auxiliaries (helpers), mainly from the previous year’s clutch” Birdlife Australia

Blue-winged Kookaburra