Jacana House

It is all about colours...

Actophilornis africanus

(Gmelin) 1789: Etheopia

The African Jacana or Lily-trotter

Length 23-28cm. (9-11")

Distribution: South Africa south of the Sahara. Widely distributed and common over much of East and Central Africa. Rare in southern and western Cape Province. Absent from the drier areas. Found on open waters (lagoons, weed-fringed lakes and quiet rivers) where there is an abundance of vegetation, especially water-lilies where it can feed on aquatic larvae, insects, snails and seeds. Probably migratory as individuals suddenly appear where not seen before.

Identification: A striking bright chestnut-brown, plover-like bird, identification unmistakable. It has a bright bluish-white bill and head shield; white foreneck and face; greyish long legs and elongated toes. Sexes are alike, female slightly larger, but size very variable. The immature bird has a black stripe through the eye, a black crown and white underparts with the back oily brown.

Length 10-12" (wing 143-156-180; tail 38-56; tarsus 56-68; culmen 47-58, 19 specimen). Iris blackish brown; bill bluish grey, sheild light blue; legs slate.

Behaviour: Seen as individuals or in groups and, when not breeding, congregate in flocks of many hundreds - a wonderful sight. Frequently chase one-another in short dashes or in low flight while calling loudly. Dives and swims when necessary and a strong flier, carrying its long toes trailing out behind. After landing, raises its wings above its head.

Voice: Its call is uttered while standing or flying: a husky, whirling, rattling screech; also a series of mournful, whining, chittering call-notes 'kyowrrr, kyowrrr' and a short coot-like cry.

Breeding: Breeds in Nov-Mar (also recorded in June,July). The female attracts her mate by building a nest in a pad of floating often half-submerged vegetation in a quiet bay. It may be moved if flood threatens. The eggs, (3-5) usually 4, are extremely glossy as if varnished, the tan-yellow colour almost hidden by long lines, dots and scrolls of black. Average(100), size is 33.0x23.2mm (30.5-37.4 x 21.5-24.8). Incubation 21-24 days.

After mating and egg laying, the male incubates and raises the young while the polyandrous female leaves to look for another mate who will eventually carry out the same parental duties. When the eggs hatch, the male jacana carries away the shells and hides them under vegetation so as not to attract preditors. The chicks are precocious, able to leave the nest and feed almost at once, althogh they still look weak and gangling.

Initially, the male carries all four chicks under his wing with their legs dangling as he looks for food. He puts them down from time to time to forage for themselves. At the first hint of danger, he crouches down and call the chicks to him encouraging them to climb into his breast feathers. He makes quite a sight, stepping cautiously over the lily-pads with several pairs of stick-like legs projecting from his breast feathers. Sometimes, quite alarmed, the anxious father drops the chicks into the water, after which the process of crouching, calling and climbing is repeated. After a few days, the young are strong enough to follow their father on forage trips without being carried.

Native names: i-Nkukumezara (Singuni), Matenda-lezebu (Zulu)