Walking on water is not as hard as you might imagine, as long as you have the right feet for the job. The African jacana (Actophilornis africana) has exceptionally long toes, which spread out to distribute its weight, allowing it to step out across the water’s surface. No wonder it is nicknamed ‘Jesus bird’.
In truth, of course, the jacana doesn’t walk on the actual water but uses floating vegetation – picking its way confidently from stem to lily pad, often with no visible support above the surface. Thus its alternative nickname of ‘lily-trotter’ is a more apt description. And occasional sinking is not a problem: jacanas swim well, and may plunge below the surface to escape a predator.
This moorhen-sized bird – one of eight species worldwide in the family Jacanidae – is a common and conspicuous sight around wetlands across sub-Saharan Africa, unmistakable in its bold livery of chestnut, yellow, black and white. Although it resembles the skulking rails and gallinules of the Rallidae family, it is more closely related to plovers and sandpipers. And, like a plover, it feeds by foraging for aquatic invertebrates such as insects and snails, often lifting the edge of a lily to snap up any goodies underneath with quick stabs of its sharp, bright-blue bill.
During the build-up to the breeding season you can’t miss jacanas. Any water body playing host to these highly competitive birds appears to be in a state of pandemonium, as they pursue each other in relentless, squawking skirmishes, often one close behind the other in low, whirring flight, long toes dangling just above the surface. Grab a pair of binoculars and you will be richly entertained.
Behind these histrionics lies an intriguing sex life. The jacana is a rare example of a polyandrous bird: one in which a single female breeds with several males. In fact, a female jacana (which is bigger than a male) assembles a harem of up to four consorts, and by breeding with each in turn produces multiple clutches – up to eight or nine in one breeding season – with an average of four eggs per clutch. Such prolific fecundity is vital. Numerous predators like nothing better than to snack upon jacana eggs, so it enables them to replace a lost clutch at short notice.
With the female busy attracting suitors and laying eggs, parental duties are down to the male. He incubates the clutch for 23–26 days, and then looks after the chicks for another 18 days after they hatch, sheltering them under his wings when necessary (pictured above). The youngsters can find their own food within hours of hatching and can fly at 35–40 days.
This arrangement may sound convenient for the liberated female jacana. But though she may call the shots, her life is one of constant stress and strife, fighting off rival females with designs on her harem and territory. Blessed are the peacemakers? Not for this Jesus bird.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.