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Monday musings on Australian literature: Kookaburras at the coast

September 20, 2010

Kookaburra (Courtesy: Noodle Snacks via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

With daughter and dog left to guard the fort, Mr Gums and I are holidaying on the northern NSW coast with Ma and Pa Gums, and so this week’s musings will be short and more relaxed. In fact, I am just going to write about one thing: Kookaburras.

I was pondering what this week’s Musings should be, until I awoke on our first morning here to the wonderful sound of kookaburras. My topic was born, because they reminded me that there is another famous Australian song, perhaps almost as well-known as “Waltzing Matilda“:

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush, is he.
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra,
Gay your life must be.

And they do laugh, even if New Zealand-born Australian poet Douglas Stewart didn’t think so. He described their sound as “a triumph of trumpets” (from “Kookaburras“). Their nickname, however, is the Laughing Kookaburra* or Laughing Jackass, though you don’t hear the latter name used so much these days. I’m not sure whether that’s because we’ve become more boring or more reverent! Kookaburras, carnivorous birds of the kingfisher family, are pretty ubiquitous in eastern Australia. We see them regularly on street lamp posts in our city, but we don’t hear them often from our house and so it is always a treat to hear them when we are out and about in the country – even if it’s at 4.30am on the first day of our holiday!

Anyhow, back to the song. It was written by a teacher, Marion Sinclair (1895-1988), for a Girl Guides Association of Victoria competition in 1934 … and the rest, as they say, is history! That said, I’ll conduct a little straw poll: are there any non-Australian readers here who have not heard or sung this song?

Kookaburras, of course, often feature in Australian writing. John O’Brien, whose “Said Hanrahan” I mentioned in last week’s musings, also wrote a poem called “The kookaburras”. While it’s a fairly sentimental poem, I can’t resist these lines:

Comes a buoyant peal of laughter from the tall, white, slender timber,
Rugged mirth that floods the bushland with the joy of brotherhood.

And that seems as good a place as any to end this week’s brief holiday musings.

*This is the more common kookaburra. There is another, the slightly smaller Blue-winged Kookaburra, but its call is also described as a “laugh”.

37 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 6:36 pm

    I was actually flabbergasted by how many Americans I met knew the song! Some had heard of it via David Sedaris, others had been taught to sing it in school. However, not a one pronounced it properly. I had to explain that it’s pronouned “cook-ah-bah-rah”, not “kook[as in someone’s a kook]-a-boo-rah”.


    P.S. Hope you’re having fun up there! Daughter and dog are doing fine 🙂

    • September 21, 2010 10:44 am

      Yes, I was too, until I read about the Girl Guides usage of the song in UK and USA which has partly resulted in its spread. I hope those reading here can understand your pronunciation guide. I decided to give up as others might pronounce “kook” differently to the way we do??

  2. Sue permalink
    September 20, 2010 7:17 pm

    Yes I love the song too, but as a keen bird watcher I’m sad to see that this iconic bird is in decline – certainly in the ACT.

    • September 21, 2010 10:46 am

      I didn’t know that Sue although I can understand it from the reduced evidence I’ve seen in recent years – I don’t hear them as often, and see fewer on the lampposts around time.

  3. September 20, 2010 10:19 pm

    I can’t believe there are no poems or songs about the trauma of having your food stolen by a kookaburra?! Or perhaps I’m the only one that has suffered that particular indignity. That said, I can’t remember the last time I heard a kookaburra, which is a little sad.

    Enjoy your time away! 🙂

    • September 21, 2010 11:10 am

      Thanks Jess … I reckon you’ll have to write one! I don’t recollect having food taken by kookaburras, though they would. Have of course had magpies and currawongs not to mention seagulls do so,

    • September 21, 2010 5:28 pm

      Oh kookaburras are notorious for swiping sausages off the barbeque. I love it when they do that, then they fly up onto a branch a kill it by banging it on the branch. I’ve had emus pinch things off the barbie plate too.

      • September 21, 2010 6:40 pm

        Mum and Dad used to feed kookaburras in Sydney – their house was very near Ku-ring-gai Chase. It was lovely. As for emus, they can be a real pest around food. I’ll have to cover them sometime down the track won’t I.

      • September 21, 2010 6:46 pm

        I was telling Stephan about that – how I’d feed the kookaburras steak at the grandparent’s place. He seemed surprised…

  4. Carol permalink
    September 20, 2010 10:41 pm

    We sang it in girl scouts when I was a little girl, even though none of us had seen a kookaburra, and in fact, I don’t think I knew it was a bird. Hope to see one someday.

    • September 21, 2010 11:08 am

      Thanks Carol … I hope you see one in situ one day too! I wonder what you envisaged sitting up in the tree as king of the bush! It’s fascinating how often we can sing words without thinking what they mean.

  5. September 20, 2010 11:03 pm

    I love kookaburras too, their jolly laughing call. I heard one last evening. I wasn’t aware that their numbers were in decline in Canberra, that is sad. I also love Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, and indeed it’s a song that I still sing every night to my son. Did you see the recent madness where a Victorian school swapped the word fun for gay? Just stupid. The world really is going mad.

    • September 20, 2010 11:23 pm

      That’s horrific! What are they going to go next, rename Gaytimes “Ice-creamtimes?”. Bah, humbug.

      • September 21, 2010 10:49 am

        Yes, I did see it Louise! In fact, I wondered if there had been something of that ilk and so did a bit of research before I wrote the post to make sure the words hadn’t been changed from under us. It does seem though that sense has prevailed. Anyhow, it’s a good opportunity for teachers to talk about the “gay” issue and also how language changes and how words can have multiple meanings.

    • September 21, 2010 5:37 pm

      I don’t think teachers particularly of primary school aged children are particularly interested in the discussing modern usage of gay. And the kids don’t know what it means. They’ve often heard it used as name-calling – it’s reasonably common on the Simpsons for instance. But that’s about their understanding of it, at least if my son is typical. We’ve explained the meaning, and that it’s not appropriate to use it that way, and he doesn’t have any problem with it.

      • September 21, 2010 6:37 pm

        No, it’s tricky in primary school : the teacher who tried to change it said the kids would fall around laughing when they heard it regardless, I suppose, whether they knew exactly what it meant. It’s not easy for teachers is it? BUT I think we should not change perfectly good and lovely words … without a very good reason.

      • September 21, 2010 11:19 pm

        No I don’t think we should change the words without a very good reason, and vague squeamishness or unease with a word like gay, is certainly not a good reason. It’s the edge of a very slippery and totally ridiculous slope.

  6. September 21, 2010 1:59 am

    I have sung this song many times! In elementary school we would have monthly all-school sing-along assmeblies and this was a standard. I can even say I have seen and heard a kookaburra. They are such cute birds. And granted, it was at an American zoo that the sighting took place, but still!

    • September 21, 2010 10:52 am

      A zoo is still a sighting I reckon! That’s the only way I’ve seen giraffes! LOL. Did you sing it as a round.

  7. September 21, 2010 4:29 am

    How could I not comment on this, given I grew up on a street called Kookaburra Drive, and I edit a bird magazine!!

    American writer David Sedaris wrote a fab essay about kookaburras in The Best Australian Essays 2009. I wrote about it here:

    • September 21, 2010 11:02 am

      Thanks for sharing that kimbofo … clearly Sedaris has interest in kookaburras. I have yet to read Sedaris (besides, now of course, this essay).

  8. September 21, 2010 6:16 am

    This was one of my favorite’s as a kid. When I was about 7 we were on a school trip that was mainly outdoors when we encountered a downpour. They piled about 120 of us 7-year olds into an old single room schoolhouse that was part of the historic site we were visiting. Well the four teachers kind of went off into the corner and tried to ignore us. But one of the mothers who was acting as a chaperone (and who happened to be my next door neighbor) decided to get us all singing. Soon all the screaming and chaos turned into beautiful song. She divided the school room down the middle and had us singing Kookaburra as a round. It was great. I remember nothing else about that day.

    • September 21, 2010 10:59 am

      What a lovely story Thomas … and what a resourceful committed mother! It’s lovely as a round.

  9. adevotedreader permalink
    September 22, 2010 7:31 am

    We’ve got lots of kookaburras where I live in Sydney, I love their “laughter” although feel sorry for the other birds they bully! Re the kookaburras infamous stealing of food, if you go for afternoon tea at Gunners in Mosman you need to defend your sandwiches- see pictures at

    • September 22, 2010 3:35 pm

      Oh love that … Jess, if you are still reading, you are clearly not the only one to suffer the indignity. How great that the restaurant provides a cover for the food rather than a net to keep the birds away. I will probably post my own kookaburra photo from this holiday in the next week BUT it won’t be an action shot like NotQuiteNigella’s one!

  10. September 22, 2010 2:55 pm

    Talking about Kookaburra evoking memories of an Australian childhood, this is interesting.

    • September 22, 2010 3:30 pm

      Thanks Judith for pointing us to that. I certainly remember the case … must admit I feel that it is a case of copyright taken too far. AND as the blogger says it wasn’t the author who complained.

  11. September 22, 2010 3:50 pm

    Stefanie: Phew! One can never assume you know how culture translates!!

  12. September 22, 2010 3:55 pm

    Louise, agree totally! I think it’s important to be sensitive in one’s use of language (to be politically correct where appropriate) but this is not one of those cases where the word is conveying anything other than its original neutral cheery meaning.

  13. September 23, 2010 10:17 am

    I’d never heard the song nor heard of it until just now. It would seem I am in the distinct minority. I did grow up in a rural area, so maybe we were just too remote for the kookaburra fad. I did own a Member’s Only jacket and a Men At Work cassette though.

    By the way, the pronunciation guide by Hannah was perfect. And now I won’t call them (kook-ah-burr-ahs). Thanks!

    • September 23, 2010 4:21 pm

      Thanks Kerry. That’s fascinating isn’t it? You were rural Virginia?

      I’m glad that the pronunciation guide worked – now you’ll have to learn to sing the song!

      • September 23, 2010 10:03 pm

        I grew up in rural North Carolina, actually. It is fascinating how certain phenomenon sweep across large parts of the English-speaking globe, but skip over certain areas. The community was fairly insular, so that probably reduced the chances of our picking up on an international phenomenon.

  14. September 24, 2010 4:34 pm

    It is isn’t it, Kerry. Still, North Carolina is a very pretty place to have grown up in – well the bits I’ve been to – along the coast, and inland around the Blue Ridge Parkway.

  15. September 27, 2010 3:56 pm

    I know the song by heart since I learned it in Girl Guides when I was a child growing up in the then British colony of Hong Kong… and I pronounce it right. Thank you for showing the photo of a K., maybe this is the first time I see its picture. But, what’s an old gum tree? Do you have a picture for us? Anyway, thanks for bringing back some fond memories 🙂


  1. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: September 23, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf

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