That Jungle Sound

Below is a clip from the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The scene is set deep within the jungles of South America, and the sound department is ensuring that we know it’s a jungle. The key part starts around 2:12 in the video:

(Side note: this clip is from a pan-and-scan Laserdisc copy of the film, which simultaneously horrifies and amuses me.)

Here’s another sound clip, of the more stereotypical version of the sound heard in films:

Okay, show of hands. Who actually knows what that jungle sound is? Hint: it’s not a monkey.

In in fact, it isn’t even a mammal.

MEET THE LAUGHING KOOKABURRA

Kookaburras are large kingfishers native to Australia and New Guinea. There are four known species. The wild jungle noise heard in movies and TV shows specifically comes from the Laughing Kookaburra, Dacelo novaeguineae.

The Laughing Kookaburra is native to eastern Australia, living in forests and urban areas. This means that, 90% of the time you hear a kookaburra in a film, it’s definitely in the wrong place.

KOOKABURRAS AND TARZAN

If you Google around looking for the origin for the use of kookaburra calls in jungle scenes, nearly every hit will mention the Tarzan films.

The character of Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the novel Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912. This book was popular enough that it spawned a whopping 25 sequels.

Tarzan also quickly moved into new media. In 1918, the first silent film featuring Tarzan hit the screens (Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan). Six more silent Tarzan films appeared before 1928.

Tarzan moved into the sound era — sort of — with 1929’s Tarzan the Tiger, with Frank Merrill in the titular role. The movie was filmed as a silent feature, but was partially dubbed in order to cash in on Hollywood’s sudden conversion to sound.

The 1930s were awash with sound-enabled Tarzan films. In 1932, MGM cranked up its Tarzan franchise with a series of films starring five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. In 1933, a 12-episode serial appeared (Tarzan the Fearless), starring Buster Crabbe. Two more film serials appeared in the 1930s, starring folks like Herman Brix as Tarzan.

And the movies weren’t the only media with Tarzan; James H. Pierce starred as the ape-man in a 1932 radio series adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, which ran for 77 286 installments. Two more radio series followed in that decade.

The fascination with Tarzan continues into modern day. There are currently around 90 Tarzan films in the Internet Movie Database.

So, the question remains: where did the kookaburra sound effect come from?

Nobody seems to know. They just say “Tarzan movies” and give up.

I don’t know either, yet. But I am going to find out. I’ve pledged to watch all the sound-era Tarzan films and serials in chronological order until I hear a kookaburra.

I do know one thing already: the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film (Tarzan the Ape Man of 1932), aka the first full-sound Tarzan film, does not contain the call of the kookaburra. However, it is the movie that is ground zero for this distinctive sound:

THE KOOKABURRA IN OTHER FILMS

Of course, the laughing kookaburra shows up in a myriad of non-Tarzan sources as well.

In The Wizard of Oz (1939), a kookaburra can briefly be heard in the forest. (I will let you folks debate whether Oz is an appropriate place for a kookaburra.)

In Objective, Burma! (1945), the kookaburra is heard early in the movie, in Burma (which is not Australia).

In Black Narcissus (1947), the kookaburra can be heard in the bamboo forests of Himalayan foothills (!).

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), the kookaburra is heard as background noise in Mexico.

In West of Zanzibar (1954), kookaburras can be heard while the poachers are hunting for elephants. Zanzibar is in Tanzania, in eastern Africa, which you will note is not Australia. (Australia isn’t really west of Zanzibar either, unless you go most of the way around the globe to get there.)

In Revenge of the Creature (1955), the kookaburra is heard during the opening scenes, in the Amazon river basin of South America.

In Swiss Family Robinson (1960), a kookaburra can be heard on the deserted tropical island. In the original novel, the family is shipwrecked in the East Indies (which definitely isn’t kookaburra territory), but at least they were on their way to Australia.

In Cape Fear (1962), a kookaburra sound appears during the third act of the film, along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, USA. Given that a kookaburra sound is usually assumed to be a monkey, I’d like to note that there are neither kookaburras nor monkeys native to the American South.

In Flipper (the 1964 TV series), the titular dolphin’s famous cry is actually a modified kookaburra call. (!) (This “dolphin call” can also be heard at the very end of The Bourne Identity (2002).)

In Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), a kookaburra can be heard in the Borgo Pass, aka the Tihuta Pass of Romania.

In Airplane! (1980), the kookaburra can be heard in the Peace Corps flashback, set in Africa.

In The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), the kookaburra call can be heard as the crazy Asian wife is leaving her husband. Since this film is set in Australia, the call of the kookaburra is ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE. (Whoa!)

In The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), the kookaburra can be heard on the fictitious “Isla Sorna”, which is supposed to be west of Costa Rica.

And finally, I shall leave you with Duck Amuck, the 1953 Merrie Melodies cartoon. Watch it all (because it’s brilliant), but pay special attention at 2:30.

Where else have you heard the laughing kookaburra?

17 comments

  1. Neowolf says:

    The lesson I take from this is that we need to transplant kookaburras widely around the world. Otherwise, our movies will be incorrect!

  2. The Gneech says:

    Some movies use peacocks, too, which always amuses me.

    -The Gneech

  3. Clearly, these are the traces of an international kookaburra conspiracy. Either that, or every kookaburra in Australia has a SAG card from doing voice work.

  4. Tony says:

    Kookaburra sounds also appeared in the Magnum PI tv series.

  5. John says:

    Francis – the talking mule, in the 1st movie, set in Burma, not only are there sound effects of kookaburras, in one jungle scene a sulphur crested cockatoo is shown in the branches. 🙂

  6. John says:

    The film The Naked Gun:

    WHERE THE HELL WAS I??

    Australia? XD

    • I have one question and I’ve been trying to look this up for year by now and I’ve been hearing this in jurassic park when the opening when the sign universal comes in and you hear this whistle in that back ground that sounds like its in the night time do you know what kind of bird it is?

  7. missylulu says:

    I noticed a lot of kookaburra sounds in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)when I watched it recently. It was set in the Amazon region of South America and filmed in the US (water scenes mainly in Florida).
    I’m glad this bugs someone else besides me.

  8. Steve says:

    Creature From the Black Lagoon and Romancing the Stone have them as well.

  9. Roz Hancock says:

    I’ve just been watching an old movie set in world war 2. “A boy a girl and a dog ” about a dog being sent to serve as a war dog. The jungle scene ( which they don’t give the location for) has kookaburras laughing the whole time, perhaps PNG ? ( New Guinea ).
    I think they were really just saying ” here we are in a jungle”. I have kookaburras around my home and they never laugh for 15 mins straight.

    • John from Oz says:

      Very true, Roz. At most you might hear a joyful chorus for five minutes or so after rain as the kookas anticipate a feed of lovely fresh worms.

      Just love those birds …

  10. John from Oz says:

    I’ve just come across this post. I love it – great fun and beaut research!

    It tickles me because I’m an Australian who grew up deep in kooka country (northern Sydney) and has always been amused and intrigued by the exotic locations filmmakers send them to. (I’ve paused The Treassure of the Sierra Madre while I write this.)

    The funny thing is that kookaburras are not travellers at all, but in fact quite the opposite. They are homebodies, marking out their area and returning there year after year. (A hole in a tree at my parents’ place was the nest of two generations, at least.) The territory of a family group can range between 16 and 144 hectares depending on the availability of prey in the particular habitat. Plus birds will honour the territory of another and will not enter it for any reason, even if it means catching a meal in its neighbour’s territory.

    So they don’t get around much at all, let alone to Mexico etc.

    Thanks for the excuse to bring out my inner bird nerd!

    John from Oz

    PS: Did you ever manage to find the first kooka in movies?

  11. david brice says:

    great job on your research,I intend to use the Kookaburra and some other jungle sounds[maybe howler monkeys] on a song I am recording,unlikly bedfellows I now see.thanks-D

  12. david brice says:

    great job on your research.I intend to use the Kookaburra and some other jungle sounds[maybe a howler monkey] on a song I am recording.Unlikly bedfellows I now see. Thanks-D

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