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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 34

From Issue No 34

They walk on water


African JacanaActophilornis africanus (Afrikaans: Langtoon)


The African Jacana is a very striking bird, and a delight to watch. It has a rich brown plumage with a bright blue frontal shield and beak, and a white throat and neck. The common name describes it perfectly, the Lilytrotter. They have very long toes, which enable them to run easily on lily pods and over the leaves of water plants. The long toes spread the weight of the bird over a large area, so the leaf or lily pod does not sink into the water as soon as it would for a bird with normal-length toes. When the Jacana takes off in flight the long toes hang down. They are good swimmers and dive to find food under water.

The African Jacana may be found on shallow freshwater wetlands or at the edges of slow-flowing rivers all over Southern Africa. In the arid regions such as the Karoo and the Northen Cape, it will only be seen along rivers such as the Orange. The Nyl River flood plain in Limpopo may support up to 1 000 in wet years. It is a rare visitor to the Western Cape, but there are two successful breeding records in the area.

In the Western Cape where the wateruintjie (Water Hawthorn) occurs, Jacanas flip over the leaves with a quick movement of the beak to look for the small water snails that are attached to the underside of the leaf. They also probe into flowers and under piles of vegetation along the water’s edge.

A very interesting feature of the Jacana is its breeding habits. It is just the reverse of what one would expect, as the female controls the lives of four to six males. The males each builds a nest, and the female will then lay 2–4 eggs in one of them, which the male will start incubating immediately. Thereafter, in a period of about a month, she will lay another 2–4 eggs in each of the other males’ nests. The males will do all the incubating, as well as the rearing of the chicks. The female has certainly done her share, having laid up to 20 eggs altogether, which exceed her mass by half. She then spends the rest of the breeding period protecting her males from attacks by other females. Fights sometimes ensue, which occasionally may even cause the death of one of the fighting females.

When incubating, the male sits down with his legs spread out sideways, as there is no space under him for the long toes and long legs. He then clips the eggs under his wings, where they are in contact with the bare skin to keep them warm. If he is threatened by an otter or crocodile or any other animal, he simply runs off with the eggs under his wings. He will then quickly construct another nest platform where the eggs hatch. If danger threatens, he will clip the chicks under his wings just as he did with the eggs and run off with them. He will do this even when the chicks are half grown, with the legs and long toes of the chicks hanging out from under his wings.

When they nest on big dams or pans, the wind will sometimes whip up waves of 20 cm high. Then the nests may either disintegrate or sometimes one or two eggs will be shaken off the nest and float away. The male will then quickly repair the nest, and run off and retrieve the egg or eggs, again under his wing. He will then carefully bring them back to the nest.

One day while photographing from a hide at three different nests, all the nests lost one or two eggs. The male at the nearest nest then came back with an egg, but it was a freshly laid egg from one of the other nests, as one could tell from the much lighter colour. It was interesting to see that he went on incubating the new egg for another eight days after the other chick had hatched. At another nest, where the first egg had just been laid, the male brought back what was obviously an addled egg. It was still on the nest when the other three eggs hatched.

Fortunately the lovely African Jacana is not threatened and its numbers have remained steady over the years.

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Male African Jacana on nest with its long legs and toes spread out sideways

The male Jacana sits on the nest with its long legs and toes spread out sideways

African Jacana walking on lily leaves

At a distance one may think the Jacana is walking on water!

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