Naming the bird:

The name jacana originally came from the Tupi language of Brazilian indigenous tribes. What they called y-acã-nã (soft c) meaning ‘that which has a loud voice’. This was transcribed into Portuguese thus: Jaçanã pronounced ‘jassanah’ with the accent on the last syllable. Many now, especially outside Portuguese and Spanish speaking Latin America, pronounce the word ‘jakarna’ with the accent on the middle syllable.

Collective Nouns: None found.

Alternative names:

• Lily Trotter – after it’s habit of walking on lily leaves
• Lotus Bird – after a species of floating plant life
• Jesus Bird or Christ bird – after the fact that they can seemingly walk on water when the lily leaf is slightly submerged.
• Skipper
• Little white water princess – from Assam to describe the Pheasant-tailed Jacana.
• Mexican Jacana – alternative name for Northern Jacana used in USA where the nearest normal range of the bird is in Mexico also known as Armed Sandpiper and Vanneau armé dela louisiane (Louisiana Armed Lapwing.


• Exceptionally elongated toes and claws, especially the hind claw which is usually very straight or upturned, this allows them to spread their weight across the surface of the lily leaves
• Most Jacanas exhibit role reversal between the sexes. Males will usually only breed once per season but aggressively take sole charge of the young and feeding territory. Females will mate with more than one male but will help to defend the males’ territories whilst not helping at all with the rearing of the young.
• Young birds are strong swimmers like their parents and will dive to avoid danger sometimes remaining with just the tip of the bill and nostril above water clinging to underwater vegetation.
• Curiously the very young will apparently only feed when they are accompanied by a feeding male. If that male gets distracted for some reason or worse still deserts, or dies, leaving the chicks alone, although they are more than capable of feeding themselves they will simply stop doing so. They will loaf around and have been known to starve themselves to death if the male does not return.
• Several species within the group have enlarged flattened radii (bones in the wings) which are thought to allow the males a unique method of incubating the eggs and brooding the young where they sit on their wings, wrapping them under themselves and nestling the eggs and young between the wings and breast. They will also use this method to carry the young with two on each side producing the amusing sight of a bird with large feet sticking out from beneath its wings. Having said this, not all jacanas have this adaptation the Lesser Jacana in Africa being one of them, but it still carries its young in this manner.
• Pheasant-tailed Jacanas have sharp metacarpal spurs, an attribute which they share with the Northern Jacana and Wattled Jacana, as well as a number of lapwing species.


• When Linnaeus first named the Northern Jacana in 1758 he doubtless had never seen one, except perhaps as a skin or a stuffed bird, and so could be excused for thinking it was related to the gallinules and coots. This resulted in him giving it the generic name Fulica in common with the coots. The specimen was also erroneously labelled as South America; it was collected in Western Panama in Central America. In South America it is replaced by the Wattled Jacana which Linnaeus described some eight years later in 1766. In the latter case he named the species with the generic name of Parra. This name had come from some mythical bird that certainly wasn’t a jacana and even Linnaeus himself wasn’t happy with it, suggesting that it may not be suitable. The Parra connection has persevered though, in the Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea and the Lesser Jacana Microparra capensis.

• The first record of Northern Jacana in the United States (where it is sometimes known as Mexican Jacana), appeared in the bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithologist Club for 1876. Dr Merrill saw some near Fort Brown in Texas and subsequently shot at the birds, wounding one but not ‘securing’ it.

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