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Friday, October 14, 2011

21) Laughing Kookaburra

Dacelo novaeguineae

Last Saturday morning, quite unexpectedly, I was woken by the sound of Kookaburras laughing.  There are a handful of bird sounds – the warbling songs of Magpies (Cracticus tibicen), the despairing wails of Ravens (Corvus coronoides) – that all Australians instantly recognise, and the laughter of a Kookaburra is foremost among them.  Even if, like the birds that woke me last weekend, the laughter never gets into full flight, the sound is unmistakable.  But Kookaburras are so closely associated with the bush, with eucalypts and forests and with getting out of the city, that hearing them in an urban setting is always a surprise.  In fact they’ve adapted fairly readily to Australia’s typically well-greened cities, but even so, hearing the Kookaburras yesterday morning in– at least three of them, in my neighbour’s back-garden in inner-city Melbourne – was so incongruous that it jolted me instantly out of bed.  Would that I could wake in such a way every morning. 

Like many bird calls, a Kookaburra’s laugh helps to establish territory, and at this time of year when birds in Australia are all getting ready to begin breeding there’s a lot of singing and calling and squabbling going on in the trees.  Laughing Kookaburras are, famously, the largest of the Kingfishers (Order Coraciiformes).  They may also be the drabbest of the Kingfishers, being predominantly brown and cream in colour, though the males do display some characteristic Kingfisher blue at the base of their tail and on their wings.  (A second species of Kookaburra, the Blue-winged Kookaburra, found in northern Australia and in Papua New Guinea, is not surprisingly more colourful.)  Australia is graced by a number of Kingfisher species, distributed across a range of habitats in all corners of the country, and in general their size and colouration is all so much more of a kind with what most people would imagine when they think of a Kingfisher that it’s strange to think of the Laughing Kookaburra as being among their kin – yet, colour and size aside, in appearance the Laughing Kookaburra could clearly not be any other kind of bird.  Kingfishers have perhaps the most characteristic silhouette of all birds and the Laughing Kookaburra shares that basic shape: no legs to speak of, small feet, a squat body, and a very large block-shaped head with a long, straight, heavy beak. 

Although we associate Kingfishers with rivers and with the catching of fish, there are many species of Kingfisher which are found in relatively dry areas and which feed on non-aquatic animals.  There are several such species in Australia, and the Laughing Kookaburra is foremost among them: I think perhaps one of the first animal facts that I ever learned as a child was that Kookaburras eat snakes.  They eat lizards, too, and even small mammals, perching on a branch and watching the ground intently until something edible passes beneath. 

As far as I’m aware, though, the Laughing Kookaburra is the only Kingfisher in the world which is famous for its call: a steadily growing cascade of hysterical laughter which is so familiar that I probably don’t even need to describe it.  Laughing Kookaburras often call communally, families of the birds lining up on a branch and all chorusing together, with one bird starting and the others quickly joining in. 

It must have been a disconcerting sound for the first Europeans, far from home and in an unfamiliar and difficult environment.  I can imagine that it may even have frightened them: the laughter of a Kookaburra is so maniacal that if you had absolutely no idea what it was I think it would be easy to be spooked by it.  The term “laughing” is accurate to the sound, but it’s not a kind laugh.  It’s mocking, perhaps even cruel. 

Though of course it’s neither of those things, because it’s just the sound of a bird marking out its territory for the benefit of others of its species.  Yet we humans inevitably filter the world through our own experience, and the call of a Laughing Kookaburra really does sound startlingly like laughter.  When we describe an animal’s behaviour in such specifically human terms, though, I can’t help but feel that we deny the animal a bit of agency: we deny it a little bit of itself. 

Perhaps that’s unavoidable, though.  After all, how else are we to understand an animal, if not by comparing it to ourselves?  We can try to imagine how an animal might perceive the world, but the fact that we have language and they do not presents a fundamental obstacle to trying to place ourselves into an animal’s mind.  Humans, I think, find it profoundly difficult to deliberately think without language, so much so that we tend to intimately associate consciousness with language.  But we too easily forget that language is in fact only a small part of our consciousness: that every minute of the day our minds are filled with innumerable thoughts which go unexpressed in words. 

Of course, this is a difficult thing to try to explain in words, which is the whole crux of the problem folded back on itself.  So let me give an example: one winter’s night a few years ago I was playing a game of touch football, and my team was defending close to our try-line.  I was positioned on the wing, and our opponents tried to get past me by throwing a long pass to their own winger, who was standing wider than me. 

Unfortunately for them, I was close enough to the ball to intercept it when it was passed, and I did so, and I ran away and scored at the other end of the field.  The peculiar thing, though, was that after the game had finished I could vividly recall my thought processes before I caught the ball.  Intercepting a pass is a risky move: you could drop the ball (not unlikely, for me), thus giving the other team even more possession; or even worse, you could miss the ball altogether, letting the other team score an easy try.  After the game was finished – and even to this day – I could recall the internal debate that occurred in my mind, the meticulous weighing up of the pros and cons of trying to catch the ball, the lengthy internal dialogue I’d had with myself before deciding, ultimately, to take the risk. 

Clearly, though, this did not in fact happen.  There was no discussion, no debate, no careful consideration of the situation before me: there simply wasn’t time.  The ball was flashing past me through the air, and I had only a fraction of a second to make my decision.  Yet the memory of my internal debate is absolutely real to me: even knowing that logically it cannot have been so, I cannot recall the situation any other way.  And, significantly, when I remember the moment, I remember it in words: I can recall the questions I asked myself, the questions that never actually existed.  My mind has automatically taken an instant of non-verbal decision making, and retrofitted language into it. 

It is profoundly difficult for us to imagine a consciousness without language, despite the fact that it is an integral part of our own minds.  I think that that is a major part of why humans have always been so reluctant to deny consciousness to other animals: they cannot speak, therefore they cannot think.  They cannot express themselves in words, therefore they cannot possibly have any self-awareness.  Yet if anything, I think that language is an obstacle to self-awareness: by applying it to everything, we obscure that great part of our mind which doesn’t rely upon it.  And if we can’t even imagine our own minds without language, how can we imagine the minds of other animals

 The Laughing Kookaburra is not actually laughing.  We just make it so in our own minds.  I wonder, then, what it makes of us when, perched on a tree, watching us gathered below, it hears us erupt in laughter.

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