Kookaburra with brown snake in bill
The brown snake entwined, and the blue-winged kookaburra bashed. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

To the victor go the spoils

It began with a spine-jarring drive along an unkept, heavily corrugated dirt road into Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula.

And it ended with a fight to the death that left me in awe of the courage and tenacity of the often under-appreciated Australian kookaburra – the blue-winged variety, to be precise.

I was on the Nifold Plain, known for its thousands of wedge-shaped magnetic termite mounds, and sometimes excellent birding – including the star finch, which was my objective. 

But no star finches that trip. A long-running drought had seen off most of the wildlife and dried up the usual sources of water. 

A kookaburra swooped

As I was preparing to tackle the return journey along the main park access road – once well maintained and now seemingly abandoned – a blue-winged kookaburra swooped low over the brittle stubble near my vehicle.

The bird had spotted a highly venomous eastern brown snake in the dry grass and it was game on! Both parties were quickly locked in mortal combat on the ground below my vehicle – a sensible place from which to observe, I thought.

The contest could have raged for 20 minutes, or maybe more. I really don’t know. It was so frenzied and engrossing that I didn’t even reach for my camera until it was almost all over.

More deaths

Eastern browns are fast-moving and known for their bad temper. Indeed, they and other browns are responsible for more deaths every year in Australia than any other group of snakes. 

Their venom is ranked the second most toxic of any land snake in the world. It causes progressive paralysis and stops the blood from clotting, which may take many doses of antivenom to reverse. Victims can collapse within a few minutes.

So, what chance the blue-winged kookaburra? Certainly, in the early stages of the fight, it didn’t look good. The snake had wound itself around the body of the bird and appeared to be constricting it.

A key advantage

But the kookaburra had a key advantage from the outset: it held the snake’s head firmly in its powerful bill – aided by a special groove near the end of the upper mandible, which helps in holding prey.

As do other members of the kingfisher family, the kookaburra subdued its prey by repeatedly bashing it on the hard ground and on some loose rocks. Eventually the snake loosened its grip on the bird’s abdomen and the victor set about swallowing a couple of metres of bloodied brown snake.

Although such tableaus are fundamentally what make the natural world go around, for me it was a rare opportunity to observe a skilful but seemingly under-armed aggressor successfully take on a potentially deadly opponent.

(Footnote: Rinyirru National Park covers 544,000 ha and is the largest gazetted park on Cape York. It is jointly managed by the Rinyirru Land Trust and the Queensland Government.)

©Natural Images 2018

lots of termite mounds on dry plain
Hundreds of sharp-edged magnetic termite mounds dot the Rinyirru National Park’s Nifold Plain. Photo: ©Tony Neilson
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©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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2 thoughts on “KILLER KOOKABURRA

  • David Mead December 20, 2018 at 3:11 PM Reply

    Cracking story and shot Tony.
    Love Lakefield!, unfortunately these days seems to breed far too many cats (especially Nifold) and pigs than any of the wetlands can handle. I agree, the main road through was unbelievable for most of the year, although great job completed at the end of the season.

  • Tony Neilson February 7, 2019 at 8:47 AM Reply

    Sorry for the late comment David – blame Christmas. Everything is so bloody depressing ‘out there’ these days.

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