A meal fit for a kookaburra

Kookaburra with rat 1099

I first noticed this kookaburra because a Grey Butcherbird was sitting on the branch above, watching it intently. Not much escapes a bird’s attention. The kookaburra had caught a rat and was struggling to stay in balance with such large prey dangling from its bill. 

The rat (a common introduced Black Rat or Roof Rat, Rattus rattus) was clearly dead. For at least half an hour the kookaburra continued to vigorously whack the rat’s body against the branch. As anyone who has watched a kookaburra knows, this is how they immobilise and kill their prey. However, they often continue the behaviour well after the prey is dead, like this one was doing with the rat.

Kookaburra with rat 1046

Why would the bird waste so much time and energy when the prey is well and truly lifeless? I’m sure it’s not just overkill. The reason for the continued bashing is surely to prepare the prey for eating, to tenderise or pulverise it and perhaps break it apart. In addition, it manipulates the prey back and forth in its bill — as smaller birds sometimes do with caterpillars to make them mushy inside.

A kookaburra doesn’t have powerful talons for capturing or a hooked bill for tearing prey apart, like a raptor does. Instead, its has a large straight bill and strong neck muscles attached to a special bony ridge at the back of the skull, which enable it to beat its catch with great force. The photos above and below show the bird rotating its head as it whips the prey onto the branch. There’s an audible whack as rat strikes tree.

Kookaburra with rat 1083

The Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) is one of the largest kingfishers in the world. ‘Kingfisher’ is a misleading name for this colourful group of birds because most species are not primarily fish-catchers, but live and hunt in forest or woodland. Kookaburras are in that category. The Laughing Kookaburra’s diet includes large insects, lizards, snakes, frogs, small birds, mice and occasionally, if it has the opportunity it may dive for fish. Rats are not unheard of but are certainly toward the larger end of the size range.

I watched the kookaburra for more than 30 minutes. When I left it was still grasping the rat in its bill and bashing it onto the branch, making no attempt yet to eat it. I have no idea how long this continued.

Kookaburra with rat 1023

It reminded me of the time a few years ago when I saw a kookaburra flinging a carrot against a branch. The carrot must have escaped from nearby picnickers before being ‘captured’ by the bird — and I dare say it probably didn’t put up much of a struggle. However, no amount of whacking would turn it into a meal fit for a kookaburra, though the bird certainly tried its best.

Kookaburra with carrot
No amount of whacking and bashing is going to turn this carrot into a lizard.

Recommended reading

The kingfishers that don’t fish by Paula Peeters, Paperbark Writer (includes a delightful cartoon illustrating the kookaburra’s famous laugh).

11 thoughts on “A meal fit for a kookaburra

  1. craigboase 30 April 2017 / 8:55 pm

    Nothing like some tenderised rat for lunch. Yum! Great series of photos by the way.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. bushboy 30 April 2017 / 9:58 pm

    Great photos Carol. I did a similar blog on Kookaburras and a Stick Insect lol

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Judith Pullinger 30 April 2017 / 10:59 pm

    Enjoy you tweets and blog Carol. Resident Kookaburra in my garden bashed one of my goldfish last week in the manner you describe….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carol Probets 1 May 2017 / 11:12 am

      Oh no! I’ve seen kookaburras do this with goldfish too. Thanks Judith for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. sulphurcrested 30 April 2017 / 11:44 pm

    Very nice, thank you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarah Maddox 1 May 2017 / 9:16 am

    Hallo Carol

    Nice post! I’ve seen kookaburras banging lizards against a tree, and once a small mouse, but never anything as big as that rat. I wonder if it ever succeeded in swallowing it.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Carol Probets 1 May 2017 / 11:18 am

      Thanks Sarah. I wondered the same thing. I reckon it would be too big for the kookaburra to swallow whole so perhaps it eventually broke up enough to eat in pieces.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Euge Coscarelli 12 May 2017 / 11:08 pm

    Hi Carol, I would think the kookaburra bashes the rat to literally pulverise it to a point where it will easily slip down its throat. That is the rat body is tenderised where larger bones etc are made smaller so it fits into the throat region and is then easily swallowed. Hence why the kookaburra bashes prey well after it is dead. Do you think this could be a plausible reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carol Probets 13 May 2017 / 11:06 pm

      Hi Euge, yes that’s exactly what I think too. By the time I left, the rat’s head had started to split open and perhaps this would allow smaller pieces to be eaten as well. I didn’t publish a more graphic photo out of consideration for my readers! Wish I’d been able to stay and watch the whole process to see exactly how the kookaburra dealt with it.


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