JAÇANAS Jacanidae
The Jaçanas are a unique family of waders, specially adapted to exploit feeding on lily pads in shallow freshwater wetlands throughout the tropics. The eight species are rather evenly distributed around the globe: two in the New World, two in Africa and another in Madagascar, two in Asia, and one primarily in Australasia. The latter is the Comb-crested Jaçana (above), photographed here in southern New Guinea.

Although jaçanas are primarily resident species, the first photo I ever took of any vagrant was this Northern Jaçana in south Texas (left). It was June 1972 and the month-long trip to Arizona and Texas with Wally Sumner and Ken Knittle was my first birding trip of any significant length or distance. We heard that the jaçana had been at Manor Lake and so went to look for it not because it was a vagrant, but because it was a lifer, just like the Carolina Chickadees and Mottled Ducks along the Gulf coast.  I did not have a telephoto lens; this is just a basic 35mm lens scenic of the lake with the jaçana emerging from the vegetation in the distance at left center. At the time the pair of Northern Jaçana here had apparently been resident since 1967. The summer 1972 issue of American Birds says "the now-famous Manor L. Jaçanas had a successful season; late in July 3 young were seen following 1 ad., 2 following another" (AB 26:876). Our personal visit to Texas did not go unnoticed because "two Plain-tailed Brown Jays (Psilorhinus morio) were seen in woodland just below Falcon Dam, about 100 yards from the Rio Grande, on June 15 (WS)." The WS is for Wally Sumner; he was the only one of the three of us to see the jays, which we identified with my Mexican field guide and which we searched for much of the rest of the day. These were just the second ever Brown Jays to be reported in the ABA Area (we didn't know about an April 1969 sighting at the time) and the first to be published with the comment "the birds were well described" (yes, we did duly report the record with Wally's details; AB 26:877). Wally thus is credited for one of the very first Brown Jay records in the United States. Now, some 30+ years later, I note that Brown Jays are local residents along the Rio Grande in south Texas, but that Northern Jaçana remains a rare and difficult ABA vagrant species.

The pronunciation of the name "Jaçana" has also been the subject of debate. Most birdwatchers flipping through the field guide say "Jaw-KAW-naa" but I was also sure this was wrong. It is obvious that the cedilla under the "c" means that the "c" sound is soft and sibilant (i.e., like "s") and not hard (i.e., like "k"), and I assumed the word might be Spanish or related, and thus the opening "J" must be pronounced like "H." In my formative birding years in the 1970s, the debate over pronunciation was carried on in the pages of Birding magazine. To me, the most persuasive author argued the word was a South American Indian word with the emphasis of the final syllable: "haa-saa-NAA!" and I've said it that way ever since (mostly to the glares of other birders).

So here's now the definitive answer, from the Handbook of the Birds of the World (Janni 1996, p. 287): "The name Jacana was derived from the Portuguese transliteration of a Brazilian Indian name for the Wattled Jacana. Although the name may be pronounced in a variety of ways, the original Portuguese spelling was Jaçaná." There you have it; I am right again. "Haa-saa-NAA!" it is. Yet, strangely, every time I lecture folks on the point, I get the "go f*** off" look and the statement that "we'll say it any way we want. Look, there's another Jack-kan-a." Grrrrrr.....

Whatever you call them, jaçanas have an incredible adaptation for walking on floating vegetation, especially lily pads. [An alternative name is lily-trotter.] These are greatly elongated toes and claws that spread their weight out over a significant area. When walking on just-submerged vegetation, they appear to be "walking on water." In addition, the tarsi are elongated, keeping the bird well above the waterline and making them appear quite tall for their size. The elongate legs, toes, and claws can be seen on these shots of African Jaçana (below left, a photo from Kenya) and Wattled Jaçana (below right, a photo from Brazil).
These unique features make it easy to identify a jaçana, but there is disagreement as to how many genera should be used for the eight species. Some, like Janni 1996, use many genera: the two New World species (Northern & Wattled) are in Jacana, the African and Madagascar in Actophilornis, the Lesser in Microparra, Comb-crested in Irediparra, and the two Asian species in separate genera: Pheasant-tailed Hydrophasianus chirurgus and Bronze-winged Metopidius indicus. This may be the majority approach (e.g., used by Hayman et al. 1986) but some reduce the number of genera to two or three. Pheasant-tailed and Lesser Jaçanas are often considered the most distinctive.

As a group the jaçanas are distinctive, but for some time is was uncertain whether they were more closely related to rails in the Gruiformes (they have a superficial resemblance to rails) or shorebirds in the Charadriformes. Biochemical and osteological evidence shows that they are certain Charadriformes, and most closely related to the Painted-Snipes (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990).

The Lesser Jaçana (below) is interesting for several reasons. First, although it has a wide range in sub-Saharan Africa, it is everywhere scarce, local, and little known. It is also shy and hard to see. Second, it is the only jaçana to retain a juvenal-like plumage its entire life. Indeed, it strongly resembles a juvenal African Jaçana at a distance, being less than half the size of an adult African Jaçana. This photo is from Lake Bisini in eastern Uganda. The African Jaçanas here stood fully as tall as the purple flowers on the lily pads, while the Lesser is dwarfed by the flower. Characters separating this adult Lesser Jaçana from a baby African include the disproportionately short bill, the extensive chestnut crown, the contrast between black back and rusty shoulders and pale wing coverts, and the fact it was very eager to fly! In flight it shows a white trailing edge to the wing, lacking in African Jaçana.

Lesser Jaçana is also unique in that it seems to be monogamous. All the other species have polyandrous mating systems. Males do most or all of the nest building, all incubation, and all brooding. He also does much of the care for the young, although in some species (especially Northern Jaçana) the female does quite a bit of feeding of young also. The female may consort with up to four males at a time, and it is uncertain how she decides into whose nest to lay her eggs. This is less of a dilemma when she acquires her mates sequentially (Janni 1996).

When not breeding, jaçanas tend to be social birds, occurring often in small groups. These congregations can be noisy with various thin piping calls, squeaks, and rattles. Birds move to new wetlands as favored spots disappear in the dry season, but most species are essentially resident. An exception are the Pheasant-tailed Jaçanas nesting in China or other colder areas; they withdraw south in the winter.

All the jaçanas are great fun to watch as they apparently defy physics to walking across a quiet lake or pond, Just do try to say their name correctly..... ahem.

Photos: The Comb-crested Jaçana Irediparra gallinacea was found in Wasur Nat'l Park, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, on 10 Aug 1994. The distant Northern Jaçana Jacana spinosa was at Manor Lake, Brazias Co., Texas, on 18 June 1972. The African Jaçana Actophilornis africanus was on the shores of Lake Jipe, Kenya, in Nov 1981. The Wattled Jaçana Jacana jacana was in the Brazilian Pantanal in August 1999. The Lesser Jaçana Microparra capensis was photo'd from a canoe on Lake Bisini, Uganda, on 30 July 2002. All photos © 2003 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

There is no specialized "family book" of which I'm aware, although this family is often covered in books that include shorebirds and allies (e.g., Hayman et al. 1986, briefly reviewed on the sandpipers page). An excellent overview to the family, with a set a very impressive photos, is in Jenni (1996).

Literature cited:

Hayman, P., J. Marchant, and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. Croom Helm, London.

Jenni, D.A. 1996. Family Jacanidae (Jaçanas), pp. 276-291 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of the Birds of the World. Yale Univ., New Haven CT.

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