African Jacana – Description, Diet, Behavior, And Fun Facts

By Kevin Myers | 2023 Update

Step into the enchanting world of the African Jacana, a bird that will leave you spellbound with its captivating presence.

With its striking appearance and fascinating behaviors, this feathered marvel effortlessly captures our attention. Its graceful movements across floating vegetation and its ingenious nesting strategies will leave you in awe.

Join us as we delve into the simplicity and allure of the African Jacana’s life, where every moment holds a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Scientific NameActophilornis africana
Size25-29 cm long (body length)
WeightApproximately 150-235 grams
LifespanUp to 20 years in the wild
DietOmnivorous (feeds on insects, aquatic invertebrates, seeds, and plant matter)
HabitatWetland habitats, marshes, lakes, and swamps with floating vegetation
DistributionWidespread across sub-Saharan Africa
ReproductionPolyandrous (one female mates with multiple males)
Conservation StatusLeast Concern (as of 2021)
Unique TraitsAbility to walk on floating vegetation due to long toes and claws, and role reversal in child-rearing with males incubating eggs and caring for young

African Jacana Pictures

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What is an African Jacana?

Origin and Evolution

The African Jacana’s origin and evolution offer a fascinating glimpse into the rich tapestry of avian history. Belonging to the family Jacanidae, this extraordinary bird species has gradually adapted over countless millennia to flourish in its marshy surroundings throughout the African continent.

The earliest ancestors of the African Jacana can be traced back to old times when the avian lineage diverged, giving rise to various bird families. Over time, adaptations for a semi-aquatic lifestyle emerged, leading to the development of the Jacanidae family, to which the African Jacana belongs.

The evolutionary journey of the African Jacana has equipped it with remarkable traits perfectly suited for its wetland environment. Among its most noticeable characteristics are its elongated toes and talons, giving it the ability to elegantly traverse over floating plants without submerging. This adaptation allows the African Jacana to navigate its habitat with exceptional agility, accessing food sources that other birds may struggle to reach.

African Jacana Types/Species

The African Jacana (Actophilornis africana) is a species of bird in the family Jacanidae, which is found in the tropics worldwide. The African Jacana is the only member of the genus Actophilornis.

The Jacanidae family includes a total of eight species of jacanas that are distributed around the world.

These include:

  1. African Jacana (Actophilornis africana)
  2. Comb-crested Jacana (Irediparra gallinacea)
  3. Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus)
  4. Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus)
  5. Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa)
  6. Wattled Jacana (Jacana jacana)
  7. Lesser Jacana (Microparra capensis)
  8. Greater Jacana (Jacana schomburgkii)

Each species is adapted to its specific environment and has unique features, but all jacanas share the characteristic long toes and claws which enable them to walk on floating vegetation in their preferred wetland habitats.

Physical Appearances and Adaptations

1. Size and Structure

The African Jacana is a medium-sized bird, with adults typically measuring around 30 to 35 centimeters in length. It has long legs and extremely long toes, which are its most distinctive feature. These elongated toes, equipped with long claws, allow the bird to walk on floating vegetation without sinking.

2. Plumage

The African Jacana displays sexual dimorphism in its plumage. Males often boast vibrant colors, including shades of brown, black, and gold, along with intricate patterns and markings. On the other hand, females possess more muted brown plumage, which aids in camouflage during nesting.

3. Bill and Foraging

 The African Jacana possesses a long, slender bill that is perfectly suited for its feeding habits. It uses its bill to probe the vegetation and shallow waters in search of a variety of food sources, including insects, spiders, small crustaceans, mollusks, seeds, and aquatic vegetation.

4. Floating Adaptation

The African Jacana has evolved specialized adaptations to navigate its wetland habitats effectively. Its long legs and toes, with wide-spread claws, distribute its weight evenly, allowing it to gracefully walk on floating vegetation without breaking the surface tension. This ability gives the bird access to areas where it can find food and escape potential predators.

5. Nesting Behavior

One of the many interesting adaptations of the African Jacana is its unique nesting behavior. Unlike many other bird species, the male African Jacanas take on the primary responsibility of incubating the eggs and caring for the young. This adaptation is believed to be an outcome of competition for mates, with females selecting males based on their nest-building skills and caregiving abilities.

Behavior and Lifestyle

1. Territoriality

African Jacanas are known to establish and defend territories, primarily during the breeding season. Males vigorously guard their nesting sites and engage in aggressive displays to deter potential intruders.

2. Social Behavior

While African Jacanas are typically solitary birds, they can be seen in loose groups or pairs, especially during non-breeding periods. They may congregate around abundant food sources or suitable habitats, engaging in interactions such as foraging and vocalizations.

3. Foraging Techniques

The African Jacana employs a variety of foraging techniques to find food in its wetland environment. It walks on floating vegetation, using its long legs and toes to distribute its weight and probe the vegetation and shallow waters with its slender bill. This allows it to access insects, small invertebrates, seeds, and other aquatic food sources.

4. Nesting and Parental Care

The nesting behavior of the African Jacana is fascinating. Males construct nests on floating vegetation, carefully weaving plant material to create a sturdy platform above the water. Once a female selects a mate, she lays her eggs in the male’s nest, and he takes on the primary responsibility of taking care of the eggs and the young chicks after hatching.

5. Vocalizations

African Jacanas communicate through a variety of vocalizations. They emit calls and alarm notes to communicate with potential mates, signal territorial boundaries, and alert others of potential threats.

6. Migration

The African Jacana is generally a non-migratory species, with most individuals residing in their wetland habitats throughout the year. However, some populations may exhibit local movements in response to changes in water levels or food availability.

7. Feeding Associations

African Jacanas often form feeding associations with other bird species, such as herons and ibises. By associating with these larger waterbirds, they benefit from their disturbance of potential prey and find additional food sources.

Eating Habits

The eating habits of the African Jacana revolve around its wetland habitat and specialized adaptations.

Here are some key aspects of its feeding behavior:

1. Omnivorous Diet

The African Jacana is an omnivorous bird, meaning it consumes a varied diet that includes both animal and plant matter. This adaptability allows it to exploit the diverse food resources available in wetland ecosystems.

2. Invertebrates

Insects and other invertebrates form a significant part of the African Jacana’s diet. It forages along the water’s edge, probing the mud, vegetation, and shallow waters with its long, slender bill to capture small insects, spiders, crustaceans, and mollusks.

3. Seeds and Plant Material

The African Jacana also feeds on seeds and various plant parts. It may consume the seeds of aquatic plants or pick at vegetation, including leaves, stems, and fruits found in its habitat.

4. Floating Vegetation Foraging

One of the remarkable feeding behaviors of the African Jacana is its ability to walk on floating vegetation. It carefully distributes its weight using its long legs and toes, enabling it to access food sources that other birds might not be able to reach.

5. Feeding Associations

The African Jacana often forms feeding associations with larger waterbirds, such as herons and ibises. By foraging near these birds, it benefits from their disturbance of potential prey and gains access to additional food resources.

6. Food Availability and Seasonal Changes

The diet of the African Jacana can vary depending on the availability of food in its wetland habitat. It may adapt its feeding habits in response to seasonal changes, fluctuations in water levels, or shifts in prey populations.

7. Efficient Foraging Techniques

The African Jacana has evolved efficient foraging techniques to optimize its food acquisition. Its long bill allows precise probing in search of hidden prey, while its ability to walk on floating vegetation provides access to a unique foraging niche.

Reproduction and Lifespan


1. Breeding Season

The breeding season of the African Jacana varies depending on the geographical location and local climate. It typically occurs during the wet season when suitable nesting sites and food resources are abundant.

2. Courtship Displays

Male African Jacanas engage in elaborate courtship displays to attract females. These displays often involve vocalizations, wing-flapping, and striking visual demonstrations, showcasing the male’s fitness and ability to provide care.

3. Nest Building

Once a pair forms, the male takes the lead in constructing a nest on floating vegetation. He weaves plant material to create a sturdy platform above the water, providing a safe and secure location for the female to lay her eggs.

4. Egg Incubation

After the female lays her eggs, typically two to four in number, the male takes on the responsibility of incubation. He carefully tends to the eggs, regulating their temperature and protecting them from potential threats.

5. Cooperative Parental Care

Upon hatching, the male continues to provide diligent care to the chicks. He feeds them and offers protection, while the female may mate with other males and contribute to additional clutches in some cases. This cooperative parental care ensures the survival and well-being of the offspring.


The lifespan of African Jacanas in the wild can vary depending on various factors, including predation, habitat conditions, and food availability. They are known to live for about 8 to 12 years in the wild.

These estimates are based on observations in natural environments. In captivity, where potential threats are minimized and optimal care is provided, African Jacanas may have longer lifespans.

Throughout their reproductive years, African Jacanas invest significant time and energy into successful nesting, incubation, and parental care. By employing cooperative strategies and specialized behaviors, they enhance the survival chances of their offspring and contribute to the continuity of their species.

Distribution and Habitat

The African Jacana is distributed across various regions of sub-Saharan Africa. 

Let’s explore its distribution and preferred habitat:

1. Geographic Range

 The African Jacana is found in a wide range of countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Its distribution extends from Senegal and Gambia in the west to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in the east, and southward to South Africa.

2. Wetland Habitat

 The African Jacana is closely associated with wetland environments, particularly those with shallow waters, abundant vegetation, and floating vegetation mats. It can be found in various wetland habitats, including marshes, swamps, floodplains, lakes, ponds, rivers, and even man-made reservoirs.

3. Vegetation Preference

 Floating vegetation, such as water lilies, water hyacinths, and papyrus, plays a crucial role in the African Jacana’s habitat selection. These plants provide not only food sources but also a substrate for nesting and roosting.

4. Freshwater and Brackish Environments

While the African Jacana primarily inhabits freshwater wetlands, it can also tolerate brackish water environments, such as estuaries and coastal lagoons, as long as suitable vegetation and prey resources are available.

5. Range and Habitat Variability

 The African Jacana’s distribution and habitat preference can vary across its range. It may be found in permanent wetlands, seasonal wetlands that experience dry periods, or areas with fluctuating water levels. They are adaptable to different wetland conditions as long as essential resources are accessible.

6. Wetland Ecosystem Importance

The presence of the African Jacana in wetland habitats is significant as it plays a role in the ecosystem dynamics. By foraging on invertebrates and seeds, it influences prey populations and vegetation dispersal, contributing to the overall balance of wetland ecosystems.

Predators and Threats

The African Jacana faces various predators and threats in its natural environment. 

Let’s explore some of them:

1. Avian Predators

Owls, Raptors, and other birds of prey pose a threat to the African Jacana. They may target both adults and young chicks, particularly when they are vulnerable during nesting or foraging activities.

2. Terrestrial Predators

Terrestrial predators, including mammals like mongooses, genets, and small carnivores, can pose a risk to the African Jacana, especially during nesting periods. These predators may attempt to raid nests or prey on adult birds.

3. Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles like snakes and large lizards, as well as certain amphibians, can pose predation threats to the African Jacana. They may target both eggs and young chicks.

4. Habitat Loss and Degradation

One of the significant threats to the African Jacana is the loss and degradation of its wetland habitat. Factors such as urbanization, agricultural expansion, drainage for land conversion, and pollution can fragment and destroy the suitable habitats the birds rely on for foraging, nesting, and survival.

5. Invasive Species

Invasive species, such as introduced predators or plants, can have a negative impact on the African Jacana and its habitat. Predatory species like rats and cats may prey on eggs and chicks, while invasive plants can alter the natural vegetation structure and impact food availability.

6. Climate Change

Climate change and associated impacts, such as altered rainfall patterns and rising temperatures, can have indirect effects on the African Jacana. Changes in water availability and vegetation dynamics in wetlands can affect the bird’s foraging opportunities and nesting success.

7. Human Disturbance

Human disturbance, including recreational activities, habitat encroachment, and disturbance during nesting periods, can disrupt the natural behavior and breeding activities of the African Jacana. Excessive disturbance can lead to nest abandonment or decreased reproductive success.

Conservation Status and Life Today

The African Jacana (Actophilornis africana) is listed as a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This classification indicates that the species is currently not facing any immediate threats to its survival.

5 Incredible Fun Facts About African Jacana

1. Water-Walking Wonders

The African Jacana is often nicknamed the “Jesus bird” because it looks like its walking on water. Their elongated toes and claws distribute their weight evenly across lily pads and other floating vegetation, creating the illusion of water-walking.

2. Female Rules

Unlike many bird species, the African Jacana is polyandrous, where the females mate with multiple males. The female is also larger and more brightly colored than the male.

3. Role Reversal

 In the African Jacana community, the males take on the primary role of incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks, which is usually a role assigned to females in most bird species. 

4. Defying Gravity

African Jacanas have a fascinating ability to adjust their body angle and wing positions to catch the wind, which allows them to hover momentarily in mid-air, a trait not common in many bird species.

5. Long Lifespan

For a bird of its size, the African Jacana has a relatively long lifespan, living upto 20 years in the wild. This is way longer than the lifespan of many other similar-sized birds.

African Jacanas FAQs

1. What do African Jacanas eat?

A: African Jacanas are omnivorous and primarily eat insects, aquatic invertebrates, seeds, and other plant matter. Their diet may vary based on the availability of food in their habitat.

2. Where can African Jacanas be found?

 A: African Jacanas are widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa. They are usually found in wetland habitats such as marshes, lakes, and swamps with floating vegetation.

3. How long do African Jacanas live?

   African Jacanas can live up to 20 years in the wild under optimal conditions, which is relatively long for a bird of its size.

4. Why do African Jacanas have long toes?

   African Jacanas have exceptionally long toes and claws that help them distribute their weight evenly over lily pads and other floating vegetation. This allows them to “walk on water.”

5. What is unique about African Jacana’s mating system?

A: African Jacanas have a polyandrous mating system, where one female mates with multiple males mates. The males take on the role of incubating the eggs and caring for the young, which is a role reversal compared to many other bird species.

6. What is the conservation status of African Jacanas?

A: The African Jacana is classified as “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), indicating that it’s not currently under immediate threat of extinction.