Black Kookaburras

February 2009

Is the last laugh for the black sheep in the family?

Are black kookaburras rare? I had never heard of a black kookaburra until I saw one with my own eyes and no one we have talked to has ever seen one either.

Answer

We have had reports of all black or dark brown Laughing Kookaburras recently from Nanango and Tingalpa, Brisbane. At Tingalpa there is even a dark brown and a black kookaburra in the same group. Since kookaburras live in extended family groups these birds are probably close relatives.

Black kookaburra from Nanango

Black or dark brown feather colour in birds is due to melanin, and excess production of dark pigmentation is called melanism. Many bird species are known to occasionally produce individuals with extra black pigmentation, including Blue-winged Kookaburras, Laughing Kookaburras, egrets, owls, penguins, partridges and pheasants.

Melanism is usually caused by a genetic change and the genes responsible for melanism in birds are fairly well understood. Very simple genetic changes, sometimes even a single mutation, can produce radical changes in colouration.

Are we witnessing evolution in action? Will legions of future kookaburras look like they're barracking for the All Blacks?

Probably not.

However we are being treated to a dramatic first-hand glimpse of the raw material used in evolution - variation. This variation probably won't enhance these kookaburras' breeding success so their genes probably won't increase in frequency in future generations. But under some circumstances melanism will help birds: it can make feathers tougher; it increases the warmth they receive from the sun; it affects how visible they are to other animals; and it is thought that it can indirectly enhance their immune system.

If you want to view other reports of black kookaburras, or would like to post your own sightings, visit the Birds in Backyards Forum.

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