Aug 13, 2011

Kookaburra Field Biology 1

I figured I'd share a few of my ongoing adventures from down here in Australia.

One of my favourite past times (especially down here in Aus) is bird watching. Of all bird types I think my favourite are the Kingfishers, and of those the Kookaburra stand very high on my preferred watching list.

While in previous visits to Aus (all in their summer), the Kookaburras hadn't been the most cooperative. Yes I'd see them, and manage to snap a photo or two, but they usually only stuck around for a few minutes. Part of this was probably due to a more plentiful food supply (the Kookaburra diet has a lot of reptiles on it, which in Tasmania tend to hibernate during the colder months), so they could spare the energy to fly away. Additionally back in those days my cameras only had 4X or 10X zooms, which meant I had to try and get a whole lot closer for pictures and usually ended up scaring them away.

Now in the colder months, where the Kookaburras are reputed stay in one spot to conserve energy and find more elusive meals, and my new 20X zoom camera allowing me to keep a much greater distance I've been able to get a lot more quality Kookaburra time in. I've managed nearly a dozen observations of groups of Kooks for over 10 minutes each.

So here are some of my field observations. These are just my interpretations, and so don't go quoting me as an authority or anything. Think of these as my hypothesises, and only with more observations (aka repetitive data) can I confirm or deny any of this. (I'm also planning on treating myself to Kook expert Sarah Legge's book once I get a job).

Today's is on Kookaburra body language and communication. So based on my observations and reading, Kookaburras live in small family social groups, but are very territorial and aggressive towards Kookaburras of other groups. There photos are all of the same bird until I note otherwise.

The majority of the time you see a Kookaburra they are somewhere high up with good observation potential (just like most other Kingfishers). These perches can vary but that is my next post...

Most of the time the Kookaburra are in what I'll call their solitary state. It is a good sign there are no other Kookaburras around that the subject is interested in. When they are not concerned about other birds, they sit up straight, have their tail down, and puff their feathers out (especially in this cold winter weather). The feathers around the head are the key indicator of agitation or not. If your Kookaburra has a dome and pronounced sideburns of feather you're looking at a relaxed Kookaburra.

This is not to say it is a truly solitary bird. I've seen many Kookaburras sitting beside each other in this state. It just tells you that there are no rivals nearby, and any close proximity birds are in the same family group.

If the bird gets agitated it will slick its feathers into its body. While the body will loose some of its puff, the head is the telltale area to watch for this bringing of the feathers in. The Kookaburra's head will suddenly become very streamlined with the beak (and you'll realize how much of their typical profile is made up of display feathers). This tells you it has either noticed a territory challenge far off (as Kookaburra's call is loud and travels a great distance), a fellow family member it wishes to call to, or fly away.

If a Kookaburra draws its feathers in, but doesn't call within 5 to 15 seconds, it was (or is) planning to fly away. To tell if the bird is going to call or fly in an agitated state watch the tail in particular, but also posture. If the tail stays down its going to fly. While the tail is the best indicator its stance can also help predict what it is going to do. If the bird stays erect or leans forward again it is probably going to fly.

If the Kookaburra raises its tail, and aligns its head and body upward it is displaying and might start calling! I've never seen a bird fly immediately from this stance, and it almost always means there are other Kookaburras nearby. Whether they are friendly birds or rivals is very difficult to tell without flight actions (chasing).

Calls come in varying degrees both in volume and body posture. Kookaburras will start a laugh from this display pose, but it isn't not the very loud or raucous call they are famous for.

As they ramp up the volume and get into the laugh they'll tilt their neck right back and bring their body back into an erect state. The mouth will finally visibly open.

Sadly my example bird wouldn't laugh when I was at the optimum angle of the previous photos. So you're probably wanting to see a laugh from a better angle. The next two photos from my 2009 visit give you this view, but are of a different bird (I presume... they were taken only 300 metres from each other).

Another thing that tends to happen when Kookaburras really start laughing (as opposed to the light call of their display posture) is that every other bird in the general area will gather to the laughing bird(s). Meaning you can get anywhere from two to eight birds (in my experience anyways... I could see a higher maximum, but have never seen it myself).

It is at this point you'll be able to tell if it is a single family group your watching, or rival tribes. If the birds all just sit and call, they're friendly to one another. If they start chasing each other or taking swoops at the calling bird, they are likely rival groups.

I hope this was interesting to people, and if there are any Kookaburra experts reading this I'd love feedback (whether I'm right or wrong). Again this is just my hypothesis on body language, based on eleven or so close observations.


davidmaas said...

I thought you'd moved to Canada!
Great post.

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Thanks David!

Well you are correct we did move to Canada, but as of our ending work (I got feedup with the BS of my Canadian job, and my wife's department was downsized) we have returned to Australia to visit her family and regroup for our next phase.

We've only been here for a month. The plan is China or bust at moment.

Albertonykus said...

I love kookaburras too (though I haven't had the chance to go to Australia). Nice field study!

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

Albertonykus- If you ever go to the effort to come down here, specifically to see Kookaburras I have to say Canadian summer (aka Aussie winter) is the time to do it!

Today was the first day in 8 I haven't seen a Kookaburra! Considering this is the first day I didn't head outside that is pretty impressive.

In the summer I was lucky if I saw one in a week!