Kookaburras: the sounds of Australia

The kookaburras woke me again this morning before 3:30.  The numbers seem to be on the rise at the moment, maybe after the floods brought more food.  A new group has moved in across the road, and their braying laugh is usually a happy sound.  But at 3am?

According to a friend of mine who is a Catholic priest, the Aborigines say that kookaburras take away the souls of the dead.  Chris has attended many deathbeds, and he says kookaburras give him the creeps because they cry out, just as the person dies.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence of timing, for many people die in the hours before dawn.

Early settlers in Australia found the sound of kookaburras equally arresting, though they gradually grew fond of the birds they called ‘laughing jackasses’.

Gogaga is [the Aboriginal] name of the bird we call the Laughing Jackass,’ wrote a letter writer in the Sydney Monitor in 1829, ‘and Gogaga repeated quick is part of the chuckling notes, which distinguish that ludicrous forester.’

The distribution of birds and other wildlife in Australia has changed a lot in the last two hundred years, and not just because European settlement endangered so many species.  There were beneficiaries too, like the kookaburra.  The birds hunt for lizards and snakes in open country, so as the settlers moved inland, the kookaburra followed, benefitting from the land clearing that threatened other wildlife.

In a typically lush passage in the first chapter of The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes paints a vision of Sydney Harbour, with sulphur crested cockatoos flying overhead.  Critics later quibbled with this, pointing out that the distribution of cockatoos has changed with the conversion of grass lands to grain, and the birds probably didn’t live in Sydney in 1788.  But who knows?  An absence from the records doesn’t constitute proof.  In any case, wherever the colonists first encountered them, their harsh cry must have added to the strangeness of the new landscape.

The strange sounds haunted them. In this antipodean world, swans were black not white, and trees shed their bark rather than their leaves. The naturalist George Caley named the Southern Boobook owl a night cuckoo, because its call was similar, and because to him it made perfect sense to find here a nocturnal cuckoo, the exact opposite of its counterpart in the northern hemisphere.

Early settlers reacted to this new landscape by trying to impose familiarity on the unfamiliar through naming strategies – native bear (koala), duck mole (platypus), laughing jackass – most of which have since disappeared. Today the sound of the kookaburra is much more familiar than the sound of a braying donkey, so the analogy has been lost.

A more fateful attempt to impose the familiar on the unfamiliar came with the importation of European wildlife.  Rabbits are our most famous imports, but foxes, deer, carp and trout were all brought in for ‘sport’, and from the 1860s, the process because officially sanctioned with the establishment of acclimatization societies.

These societies set out to bring in animals and plants from other parts of the world and to ‘acclimatize’ them to Australian conditions.  Nobody knew about genetics at the time; the assumption was that animals and plants would gradually adapt to a new environment.  The societies were most interested in finding commercial products, such as sugar and cotton and alpacas (I kid you not!).

As well, though, especially in Victoria, the richest colony, there were importations that served no commercial purpose, and were brought in for purely sentimental reasons.  In particular, colonists missed the songbirds of their homelands.  Hundreds, probably thousands, of sparrows, thrushes, starlings and others came out.  Most died during the long voyage out, but those that survived were released into a land without their natural predators, and the populations exploded.

(Mind you, Australia got its own back with the budgerigar, which is now the world’s most popular pet bird.)

Environmentalists are naturally critical of the acclimatization movement, which brought so many feral birds to Australia.  And yet.  We know how long it took settlers to adapt to the Australian landscape, and how they shaped the landscape to conform to European aesthetics.  But the desire for a familiar soundscape must have been every bit as understandable, though comprehending that longing takes a greater leap of imagination on our part.

Only later, as Australian sounds became familiar, did we begin to appreciate our own songbirds, and our own dawn chorus.  Though not at 3am.

Birds in Backyards: Top 40 bird songs

3 responses to “Kookaburras: the sounds of Australia

  1. The kookaburras love it when we mow and I’ve always thought there must be more of them now than at first settlement.

  2. A really enjoyable read, thanks. The night call I always had trouble figuring out as a kid was that of the Willy Wagtail. Sometimes they’ll call all night, took me ages to figure out what they were.

  3. Pingback: Teeth | Historians are Past Caring

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