Jacanidae

African Jacana
The African jacana is a distinct member of the Jacanidae bird family. Chris Eason

Definition:

(noun) The scientific bird family designation that covers all jacana species in the world.

Pronunciation:

juh-KAHN-uh-dee or juh-KAHN-ih-day

About Jacanas

Jacanas are wading birds specific to tropical and sub-tropical habitats such as shallow freshwater wetlands, marshes, small lakes and flooded fields. While this is a relatively small bird family with just eight species, these birds are widespread.

Different jacanas can be found in appropriate habitats throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, India, southeast Asia, Indonesia and Australia.

Jacanas are distinct and relatively unmistakable, and while their plumage and coloration varies, they all share characteristics that identify them as Jacanidae birds. Traits that distinguish jacanas include…

  • Similar appearances for each gender, though females are typically larger than males. Identifying genders can be difficult because of overlap between their sizes, however, though if nesting behavior is seen, gender roles are distinct and males and females can be distinguished.
     
  • Colorful plumage with bold markings and often featuring frontal shields or facial wattles as well as colorful bills. Some of these birds also have long streamers or other outstanding physical features that are useful for identification.
     
  • Thin, sharp bills ideal for insectivorous diets that also include occasional mollusks or amphibians. These birds pick and glean their prey from the surface of the water but do not usually dip their heads far below the surface.
     
  • Long, thin legs and extremely long, thin, widespread toes and talons for superior balance that allows these birds to walk across the delicate surface of lilies and other aquatic vegetation. Leg and foot coloration can be misleading because of mud and plant debris, however.
     
  • Polyandrous mating practices and gender reversal roles where the female has multiple mates but the males care for the eggs and chicks. This allows the female to have several broods each season, increasing the chances of more surviving offspring.

Despite some superficial physical similarities to coots, gallinues and rails in the family Rallidae, genetic study of jacanas has revealed that they are not closely related to rails. Instead, the closest relatives of the jacanas include the sandpipers, snipes and plovers of the families Scolopacidae and Charadriidae.

Familiar members of the Jacanidae family include the pheasant-tailed jacana, comb-crested jacana, wattled jacana, northern jacana and bronze-winged jacana.

Seeing Jacanas

While these unique birds are found in many parts of the world and none of the species are officially considered threatened or endangered on a global scale, they can be difficult for birders to add to their life lists. Because these birds are specially adapted to living in marshes and walking on delicate vegetation, they are comfortable in areas that are challenging for birders to reach. In the appropriate range and habitat, it can be easier to find jacanas and get great views when birding by boat or birding by kayak, especially in areas where vegetation is thick and the birds are more likely to be closer to open water and would be shielded from nearby trails.

Fortunately, jacanas are so distinct that when they are seen, even at a distance or with less than perfect views, they can be easy to identify. The combination of bright plumage colors and markings, facial or head wattles and the birds' extremely long legs and dramatic toes make them easy to confidently identify. Noting just a few of these markings and features can quickly lead to the bird's identification, and while birders may wish for better views, even a poor view of a jacana can be spectacular bird sighting and a great addition to a life list.

Also Known As:

Jacanas, Lily Trotters, Jesus Birds

Photo – African Jacana © Chris Eason