The Call of the Kookaburra

This article was originally material for a broadcast of “Wavescan” via Adventist World Radio in February 2002, and now forms part of the Radio Heritage Collection ©. All rights reserved to Ragusa Media Group, PO Box 14339, Wellington, New Zealand. This material is licenced on a non-exclusive basis to South Pacific DX Resource hosted on radiodx.com for a period of five years from March 1 2002. Author: Adrian Peterson

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 (EE-MEW), 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 multiudes 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-1920’s. 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 2 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 & Sydney.

The story of this famous “Jacko”, as presented on Jerry Berg’s web site, 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 1960’s.

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 super-imposed 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 5 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.

References

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Date Station Reference
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Publications
1928 3LO Jacko on front cover, Listener In, Feb 15, 1928; NB 79.217B 34
1932 VK2ME Pictured on QSL card, AWA SW broadcasting station Sydney
1933 Book, “Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra”, by Brooke Nicholls
1935 VK2ME Photo Kookaburra now famous call VK2ME; LI 79.27 5-10-35 34 38
1937 VK2ME Pictured on QSL card, AWA SW broadcasting station Sydney
1937 VK5HL Kookaburra art drawing on amateur station QSL card, Adelaide
1938 VK2AFQ Kookaburra art drawing on amateur station QSL card, Sydney
1938 VK3EP Kookaburra art drawing on amateur station QSL card, Rochester
1940 RA “No better sales agent than Kookaburra”; ABCW 77.19 13-7-40 4
1943 6AM Photo QSL card, “The Breezy Bird” each morning on 6AM Perth
1950 RA QSL card color photo 2 Kookaburras, 4 large cards
1954 RA Yellow print QSL card VLA9, map of Australia with Kookaburra
1958 RA Orange print QSL card VLB11, map of Australia with Kookaburra
1961 RA Orange print QSL card VLE15, map of Australia with Kookaburra
1984 RA QSL card color photo Blue Kookaburra, large card
1999 RA QSL card color photo 2 Kookaburras, 2 large cards, Thai print

Jerry Berg, article, ontheshortwaves.com – “Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra”
Official State Bird of New South Wales
1923 Jacko hatched in bush in Victoria
Jacko captured in bush in Victoria, cared for by Thelma & Boss
Jacko recording Columbia Studios, Melbourne, Doctor & Barbara
Arrangements made for broadcast on “one of the wireless stations”
Melbourne: ABC 3AR 3LO, commercial 3UZ 3DB 3KZ 3AK 3AW
Jacko appearances at theatre with Thelma & Doctor
Jacko regularly on air and at moving picture theatres
Touring; Ballarat (3BA), towns in the bush
1933 Aug 29 Jacko recording Columbia Studios, Sydney, Mrs Harold Clapp
Broadcast over 2UW Sydney relayed to Melbourne
Touring north New South Wales
Newcastle: 2NC 2HD 2KO
NNSW country: 2XN 2GF 2TM
Touring Queensland
Laughed to full house and on air 8 nights in Toowoomba (4GR)
Heard on network throughout Queensland (probably AWA network) ABC: 4QG 4RK
AWA: 4TO 4WK 4AY on relay from Brisbane station
Brisbane:4BC 4BK 4BH
Country: 4GR 4MK 4RO 4MB
Jacko laugh heard America England France Japan other countries
VK2ME VK3ME

Broadcasting – Amateur
1924 VK5WS Vic Coombe Adelaide Kookaburra call 2 birds; Radio in SA 92 AMP
1924 VK5BS Occasional relays of 5WS with Vic Coombe and Kookaburra Call
1936 VK2NE Kookaburra call as opening & closing theme; ARW 77.8 1-10-36 29
1938 VK5DI 14085 kHz Sundays, sign off anthem, Kookaburra call; RN 9-38 59
1939 ABC Vic Coombe with Kookaburra transferred 5CL/5AN Adelaide; AMP

Broadcasting – Shortwave
1927 2FC-2ME 3rd Empire Broadcast, Mrs W. Clarkson’s pet; LI 79.23 9-11-27 1
1928 3LO 1st use Kookaburra, Feb 24, 1928; NB 79.217B 33 LI 15-2-28
1928 3LO Jacko Healesville reared Mrs Jury; NB 79.217B 34 LI 7-3-28 13
1931 VK2ME Call used from beginning of regular programming; LI 79.24 30-7-38
1932 VK2ME Call of Kookaburra opens closes AWA Broadcasting Service, QSL
1937 VK2ME Call of Kookaburra opens closes AWA Broadcasting Service, QSL
1939 RA Recommendation to include call of Kookaburra; AWA paper 6-1-39
1960’s RA Kookaburra call re-recorded at Melbourne Zoo; Interview K. Glover
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The Call of the Kookaburra

How Many Different Birds?

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No Year Owner Station City Occasion
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1 1920’s Private in Adelaide VK5WS Adelaide Amateur broadcasts
2 1930’s Private in Adelaide VK5WS Adelaide Amateur broadcasts
3 1927 Mrs W. Clarkson 2FC-2ME Sydney 3rd Empire Broadcast
4 1928 Mrs Thelma Jury 3LO Melbourne Jacko on air
1931 Jacko record? VK2ME Sydney Regular broadcasts began 1936 Jacko record? VK2NE Sydney Amateur broadcasts
1938 Jacko record? VK5DI Adelaide With broadcast station 5AD
1939 Jacko record? RA Sydney Radio Australia launched
5 1950’s Melbourne Zoo RA Melbourne Kookaburra call re-recorded
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