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Wattled Jacana

"My, what big toes you have,” said the lily to the jacana. “The better to walk on you with,” replied the jacana. “My, what a long beak you have,” exclaimed the lily. “The better to pick at you with,” assured the jacana.

The wattled jacana (Jacana jacana) is unmistakable with its exaggerated feet that are fit for a fairy tale and red, turkeylike wattles. Also called the lily-trotter, its toes and toenails distribute its weight over large areas to help it sprint across aquatic vegetation as if defying gravity.

The jacana (zhah-suh-NAH) is a skilled swimmer and diver—fitting adaptations for life on the Amazon River. Flooded meadows offer a floating feast of small fishes, insects, snails and vegetation. With its long, thin beak it can pluck bugs and other goodies from the tangles of floating vegetation and even turn plants over to see what’s hiding beneath. During the dry season, jacanas wade along rivers, oxbow lakes and irrigation ditches scavenging for leftovers.

Jacanas are extremists when it comes to reversing sexual roles. Females are bigger and more dominant. Males are the primary nest builders, incubators and caretakers. After the female lays her first nest of four or so eggs, she is freed to find more mates—up to five simultaneously—and lay more eggs. She will aggressively fight with marauding female competitors to both protect her male partners and ensure that she can keep laying eggs. If, however, the eggs or chicks die, she will reunite with the first male and lay another clutch of eggs. These behaviors are a matter of survival, not a lapse of fidelity. Only about half the eggs hatch, and chick survival is below 50 percent.

Whereas most baby birds require a parent’s undivided attention, jacana chicks are born precocial, meaning they can fully care for themselves. The father does keep a careful watch for up to two months, teaching them how to forage for bugs, snails, seeds and other food. When you visit Amazon Rising, watch the wattled jacanas gingerly step across floating plants or poke for food on the shore.

 

Can't find it?

Amazon Rising is temporarily jacana-less. We expect to have one in the Low Water habitat again in a few months.

Check out photos, videos and stories of other birds at Shedd.

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