If you've ever watched a movie with a jungle scene, you are probably familiar with the distinct sound that many people believe is a monkey. This “OOOOOO-OOO-OOO-HA-HA-HA-AHAHAHA” is very distinct, yet we never see exactly what animal is making the noise. But if you are from Australia, you certainly know this cackle. It's not a monkey at all, but rather a bird—the laughing kookaburra. This bird's territorial call is used as a stock sound effect, particularly in older films.
Even though the kookaburra is native to Australia, this call has been used in many tropical jungle scenes and is sometimes still included just because it has become such a part of the “exotic jungle soundtrack” that we are used to hearing. The laughing kookaburra is probably most associated with the Tarzan films, which certainly have nothing to do with Australia but include its call from 1938 onward. Since that time, the bird's noise has become part of the cinematic soundscape of everything from 1939's The Wizard of Oz to 1962's Cape Fear to 1997's Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
Though the sound is often completely disassociated from the bird and its natural habitat—at least in the world of cinema—it's worth learning more about this noisy creature. A member of the kingfisher subfamily, it typically has a whitish head and brown eye stripes. It's actually the biggest of the kingfishers and, unlike most of them, rarely eats fish.
Rather, the laughing kookaburra hunts down snakes, lizards, mice, and small birds and their young. Once it swoops down and snatches up a meal in its beak, the bird uses its stocky size to bang the prey against a branch and then swallow it whole. Though they're usually found in woodland areas and eucalyptus forests, contrary to what the movies will have you believe, they can also be found in urban areas and gardens.
Eastern Australia is their native home, but they've now been introduced to parts of Western Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. Its distinct laugh is used to establish territory and it's not uncommon to hear groups of laughing kookaburras harmonizing together. While this call can occur at any time of day, as most Australians know, it's most often heard at dawn or dusk.
So, the next time you tune into a movie and hear that distinctive call, now you'll know what this “jungle animal” really is.