Home | Back to Wavescan Index

"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.


Wavescan 374, February 24, 2002

Call of the Kookaburra

The Australian continent is home to many unique birds and animals, and these have caught the attention of naturalists and tourists alike. Some of these original fauna in Australia have become national symbols, such as the Kangaroo, the Emu, and the Kookaburra.

The Kangaroo and the Emu are national symbols on the Australian Coat-of-Arms, and the Kookaburra is the state bird for New South Wales. This bird was pictured on some of the earliest postage stamps issued by the PMG Department in the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Kookaburra is a large variety of the Kingfisher and it lives on small animals and birds and insects and snakes. Even though it is an attractive bird, it can nevertheless be a difficult bird, and it is very hard to rear in captivity.

The call of the Kookaburra, with its strange and almost human-like laugh, has become an unofficial symbol for Australia, and multitudes of international radio listeners throughout the world have heard this laughing bird as part of the sign on routine from Radio Australia.

The earliest records that we have been able to research indicate that the call of the Kookaburra was first introduced to wireless listeners back in the mid-1920s. In that era, amateur radio stations were permitted to broadcast programming on the upper end of the mediumwave band on Sunday afternoons.

Back in the year 1924, Victor Coombes in Adelaide, South Australia obtained an amateur wireless license, and the call of the Kookaburra was heard quite regularly over his station VK5WS. Victor was bedridden from an accident, and his Kookaburra calls were also heard occasionally over another experimental station, VK5BS, which was a professional installation operated by the Bedford Park Sanitorium.

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, all amateur stations in Australia were ordered off the air, and the programming with Vic Coombes and his laughing Kookaburra was transferred to the ABC mediumwave stations, 5CL-5AN.

Another amateur radio station, VK2NE, was operated privately in Sydney, and the call of the Kookaburra was used in the sign-on and sign-off routine for the mediumwave broadcasts from this station. On the shortwave scene, there was experimental station VK5DI in Adelaide, South Australia, which was associated with the commercial station 5AD. Station 5DI was noted in the United Sates in 1938 with a sign off routine which included the National Anthem and the call of the Kookaburra.

Some time back, Jerry Berg, who lives on the edge of Boston in Massachusetts, came across a children's book called, "Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra." This book was published in 1933 and it tells the story of a Kookaburra that was captured in the Australian bush and domesticated by a woman called Thelma. The "Listener In" radio magazine of that era tells us that the family name was Jury.

Thelma's pet Kookaburra was taken on a tour of many localities throughout eastern Australia and it was presented live on air from radio stations in many cities, ranging from Melbourne in the south to Brisbane, more than 1,000 miles to the north. Disc recordings of Jacko, the Laughing Kookaburra, were also made by gramophone companies in Melbourne and Sydney.

The story of this famous "Jacko,", as presented on Jerry Berg's website, www.ontheshortwaves.com, indicates that this recording was also used on air as the identification signal by the pre-war AWA shortwave station VK2ME. When Australia Calling-Radio Australia was launched in 1939, this same recording was used to identify Australia's new shortwave service. However, as Keith Glover stated on one occasion, a new recording of the laughing Kookaburra was made for Radio Australia at the Melbourne Zoo some time in the 1960s.

The Kookaburra has also featured on QSL cards issued by many radio stations in Australia. The colorful QSL card from broadcast station VK2ME pictured a Kookaburra superimposed upon a map of Australia, and Radio Australia has issued many QSL cards depicting the Kookaburra. In addition, several amateur stations have also depicted the Kookaburra on their QSL cards, as did the mediumwave station 6PM in Perth, Western Australia.

The available information would indicate that at least five different Kookaburras have been heard on air in Australia. The call of the laughing Kingfisher was presented in the broadcast programming from several amateur stations throughout Australia.

At least two different birds have been featured as the identification signal from broadcast station VK2ME and Radio Australia. However, the most famous of them all would have to be "Jacko" who was heard on dozens of mediumwave stations throughout eastern Australia, as well as on shortwave from VK2ME in Sydney and Radio Australia in Melbourne.