In Afrikaans it has the delightful name of “Grootlangtoon” which can be translated as “Big long toe”. This is wonderfully descriptive of a bird that has toes so long that they trail behind the bird when in flight. In English it is sometimes called a Lilytrotter, which aptly characterizes the reason for the long toes, for the African jacana is able to trot effortlessly across the floating waterlilies on lakes and pans in southern Africa that are its preferred habitat.
The size of a small chicken, with a length of approximately 30 cm, the African jacana is very distinctive with its chestnut coloured body; the front of the neck and sides of the face are white, fading into a yellow breast. The back of the neck and the thick eyestripe are black, and the frontal shield and the bill are light blue. The eyes are dark brown and the long legs and toes are grey. Although the sexes are similar in plumage, the females are distinctly larger than the males.
Found throughout Africa south of the Sahara, save for the very arid regions, the African jacana is a common resident on many inland bodies of water that are host to floating vegetation. They are found in small groups, in pairs or even solitary, walking over the floating plants (or running if the vegetation threatens to sink beneath their weight!), or through the shallow water adjacent to the fringing reeds as it examines the vegetation for food; mainly insects, crustaceans, small fish and seeds.
Jacanas are quite vocal, the call being a screeching “kooworr” as well as a variety of other sounds.
African jacanas are polyandrous, and the females may lay up to ten clutches of eggs per season, leaving the males to incubate the eggs and bring up the chicks on their own. Each clutch consists of an average of four brown eggs, streaked with black, laid in a nest that is built on the floating vegetation. When the last egg has been laid the male takes over and the eggs hatch after an incubation period of about 23 days. Often material is added to the nest during the incubation period, as the nests are inclined to sink. Changing water levels may also force the males to move the eggs a short distance to a better position. The eggs are at risk during incubation due to the predation of mongooses and snakes.
The scientific binomial of the African jacana is Actophilornis africanus; Actophilornis from the Greek for “a bird that loves the shore”, and africanus from the Latin for “of Africa”. Thus an African bird that loves the shore. Seems clear enough, doesn’t it?