An expert on Australian native species says birds can have empathy, grieve after the death of a partner and form long-term friendships
Monday 5 December 2016 19.20 GMT
It is generally quite well-known that kookaburras live in family groups: a bonded male and female, plus a retainer of their offspring. Numbers matter in kookaburra society because a neighbouring tribe may have its eye firmly on the expansion of territory – and may invade a smaller group.
This means the injury and eventual death of one bird – most crucially of one of the parent birds – can have disastrous effects for the remaining group. They could be evicted from their home, which is likely to lead to their death.
I once told all this to a human family of five. The oldest of the three children, a 12-year-old boy, had found an injured kookaburra on the grounds of their own expansive rural property in country New South Wales, and he had taken the bird to his parents, who then rang me for help.
The bird had a fractured wing – and 21 days later, after it was completely healed and able to fly again, I asked them whether they would like to witness the release. They did.
Before the bird re-entered the wild, I told them how important it was to the kookaburra family that they had saved this female – it had potentially saved them all from eviction, and death. I explained that we had to pick our spot well: territories were not usually very large (some 2.5 sq km) and, if released in a hostile territory, the bird could have been killed as an intruder.
I added that once the released kookaburra had landed on a branch, the other members should soon join it, and together they would sing a resounding chorus in triumph of their reunion. And so it was. I released the bird, and, sure enough, other kookaburras soon landed on the same branch and they all sang together.