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What is a Jacana?

By Debra Durkee
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The jacana is a water bird found throughout the Southern Hemisphere. In one of the animal kingdom's prime examples of gender role reversal, the jacana has a mating and breeding season extremely different from most other birds. Jacanas rarely stray far from the water, and live much of their alternative lifestyle walking across lily pads or hiding underwater from predators.

Unlike many birds, the female is almost twice the size of the male. The female can reach a mature size of up to 23 inches (58 cm) in length, while the male is typically only between 6 and 15 inches (about 15 to 39 cm) in length. Both have compact bodies, long necks, and swan-like heads. They are well adapted to life on the water; the toes of the jacana are long, and can be spread out to cover an area up to 8 inches (about 20 cm) wide. This allows them to walk across floating plants such as lily pads, giving rise to their nickname, the lily-trotter.

Found in parts of South America, Africa, India, and Australia, this type of bird includes several different species. These include the pheasant-tailed, the Madagascar, and the wattled. Across the species, though, female jacanas dominate.

Throughout the breeding season, it is the job of the female to mate with as many different males as she can, and to lay an average of four eggs in the nest of each male. The eggs are abandoned by the female as she moves on in search of her next mate, and they are hatched, fed, and cared for by the male. Females have even been known to ransack other nests, smash eggs, or kill young, and then take possession of the male who had been watching the nest to mate with and lay her own eggs with. There is an extremely high mortality rate among the young, and it is thought that this female-dominated breeding pattern developed in the jacana in order to produce more eggs and ensure the success of the species.

The jacana can fly for only short distances, and is more frequently found strolling across the surface of the water of marshes or swampy areas in search of insects or along the shoreline looking for worms and crabs. It can often be seen looking underneath floating leaves for a meal. When threatened, the bird can dive underwater and remain there until the danger has passed, with only the tip of the beak showing enough to allow it to breathe. In sharp contrast to the female, the male is aggressively protective of his young; even though they can feed themselves and travel, he will remain with them for up to 70 days after hatching.

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Discussion Comments
By anon304633 — On Nov 20, 2012

What are the jacana's predators?

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