The African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus)

The African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus)

The African jacana (Actophilornis africanus) : is a wader in the family jacanidae, also known as “Lily walkers” because of their slender legs and toes that gives them the gracefulness to walk on the lily pads that blanket their wetlands. The specie is found in sub-Saharan Africa in countries like Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and many more. The African jacana is a monotypic and hails from the family jacanidae which consists of six genera and eight species. These unusual wading birds have extremely long and slim legs, toes and claws which enables them distribute their weight evenly, thereby allowing them to walk across water on thin and flimsy floating water vegetation specifically the water lilies. These graceful birds are good divers and strong flyers accompanied by their squawking sound during flight. The species has a keen sense of sight and hearing and relies little on its sense of smell.

Physical description

African jacanas are conspicuous and unmistakable birds. The adult male is a long necked, legged and short tailed, medium sized water bird with almost egg shaped body. It is predominantly a rufous brown in color across the body, upper and lower wing areas although the shade of brown is darker below. The neck and head are white with a prominent black eye stripe and black primary flight feathers. The up surrounding of the neck is also black, the base of the front of the neck where it joins with the upper chest and the white feathers morph into a pale yellow to orange color. The bills appear short, blue with a continuing frontal shield extending above the eye stripe, over the face and the forehead to the crown. The feet and legs are grey with slim toes and claws appearing far too large for a bird of its size. Juvenile birds are similar to adults but lack the blue bill and have mainly a brown head whereas the underbody parts are white with a rufous patch on the belly. The adult female is similar to the male although generally larger in size and weight so in conclusion the female is larger than the male although the coloring of the feathers are much the same between the sexes. 

Unicity of the African jacana

Unlike nest building and parental care undertaken by the female of most species of birds, with the African jacana the duties are reversed. Breeding females usually take up with a harem of males who individually and under the study of the females build a nest and then awaits the arrival of the eggs. And once laid, the females generally moves on to the next male whilst the male bird incubates the eggs until hatching. The male is particularly protective of his chicks and has a method by which he can hide them and move them about during times of danger. With the use of his wings, he is able to scoop up the young holding them beneath his wings against his body and move about with just the chicks’ legs protruding and swinging below. The appearance of this act results in a rather comical and strange looking multi legged creature which occasionally appears to have eight or more legs. The size of the toes and claws of this bird combine to produce massive feet designed to allow easy movement across lily pads and flimsy floating water vegetation. African jacanas are not very good flyers, they are weak and only capable of short-distance flights this is because these birds moult all at the same time making them unable to fly until the new feathers have grown. This keeps the feathers stay clean and in good condition thus particularly important for water birds. Their ability to appear walking across water, lily pads and other flimsy floating vegetation has resulted to also being known as the “Jesus birds” or “Lily Trotters”. Chicks usually hide from predators by diving below the water surfaces and remaining there with just their beaks protruding above the water’s surface making indeed a fascinating and an amazing species to study.


The African jacana has evolved a highly unusual polyandrous mating system; where one female mates with multiple males and the male alone cares for the chicks. This system has evolved due to two factors: first, the eggs laid can equally be well incubated and cared for by both parents of the either sex. Secondly the lakes that jacanas inhabits are so resource-rich that the relative energy expended by the female in producing each egg is effectively negligible. This means that the rate-limiting factor of the jacana’s breeding is the rate at which the males can raise and care for the chicks and the female mates up with over 4 males. In this breeding the male builds a semi-submerged floating nest with almost every aquatic plant material and then the female mates up with a male, laying 4 brown eggs with distinct dark brown to black camouflaged markings. Occasionally the female will simply lay the eggs outside a nest on a floating vegetation. Males then collect the eggs under their wings and move them to a safer location.   As soon as she lays eggs, she moves on to a new male, leaving the previous male to incubate and raise the chicks. The female lays around 4 eggs in a nest on a floating platform. Within permanent wetlands, African jacanas are able to breed year round though where season influence a fall in water levels seasonal breeding may occur. Eggs are incubated for a period of up to twenty six (26) days by the male alone although he is not constantly on the nest due to the heat, will often require shading from the hot sun as opposed to incubation. Upon hatching, chicks are able to run, dive swim, feed themselves and are protected by the adult male. In this case, each male jacana bird incubates, cares and rears a nest of chicks. A mating pair can have up to 30 clutches of eggs each season, resulting from either the same partner or various partners. The female African jacana is more dominant than the male and much larger. At times this female jacana is highly selective about whom she chooses to mate with and she rarely chooses the same partner for every clutch of eggs she lays.


These colorful water birds utter out loud, raucous shrieks, moans and almost barking noises when danger lurks or when intruders fly over their territories. It is a noisy species uttering out a range of calls and sounds. In flight, they utter a loud and fast staccato ”kreep-kreep-kreep”, almost like a nasal trilling sound. Alarm calls are particularly by necessity, extremely loud and consists of sharp single notes similar to “kaakup”.


African jacanas occasionally choose seeds as their preferred diet consisting of fresh water insects, larvae, spiders, crustaceans and molluscs. The species normally forage whist swimming, walking across lily pads, and other floating vegetation from either the surface of the water or from the lily pads themselves. Although they are also able to catch flying insects, they have been seen picking insects from hippopotamus and buffalo backs.

Where to find them

In Uganda you can find them in Murchison falls national park, Mabamba swamp and at banks of most of Uganda’s Lakes and Rivers.

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