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  SPECIES GUIDE >> PHEASANT-TAILED JACANA
 
 
     
 
 
    Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus  
 
 
    (Bird of he month – May 2007 by Joanna Van Gruisen)
 
     
 
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
  Jacanas are record holders: they have the longest toes and claws of all the waterbirds. This is what prompts their name of ‘lily-trotter’: the oversized feet of elongated toes distribute their weight in a way that enables them to walk on floating lily leaves; they are even, in some areas, known as the ‘Jesus bird’ as their ability to walk on aquatic vegetation makes it look as though they can walk on water!

They are particularly fascinating for their very rare mating system — ‘simultaneous polyandry’;
a female will hold a territory encompassing several males (two to five) and it is only the males who incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen (Helping chick to hatch)
The male incubates for 22-28 days, and although the chicks are precocial and feed themselves from the day they hatch,
he remains with them for up to two months.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen (Helping chick to hatch)
The male incubates for 22-28 days, and although the chicks are precocial and feed themselves from the day they hatch,
he remains with them for up to two months.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
The male incubates for 22-28 days, and although the chicks are precocial and feed themselves from the day they hatch,
he remains with them for up to two months.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

The females of the species tend to be 60% heavier than the males.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Female & Male) Hydrophasianus chirurgus
copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Out of the six genera (eight species) in the world, two, both with a single species, are found in India; one of these is the largest, the Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) and the other is the Bronze-winged Jacana (Metipidius indicus).

Bronze-winged Jacana Metopidius indicus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

The Pheasant-tailed Jacana (ptj) is my favourite; in the breeding season the hind-neck becomes a stunning silky golden iridescence and the tail is arched and long. The females defend their areas quite aggressively with the help of the smaller male but it is the latter that mostly does the ‘nest’ selection and building.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Male & Female) Hydrophasianus chirurgus

The four rich shiny brown and pointed eggs are laid on nests of floating vegetation at twenty-four hour intervals.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
(Female lays an egg on the floating nest)

Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Eggs) Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
(The male Jacana destroys a newly laid egg by carrying it from the nest to drop elsewhere)

While photographing them in Sri Lanka many years ago, I was intrigued and perplexed when noticing a male removing newly laid eggs from the nest; he then encouraged the female to a different site a few feet away from the first and she continued laying until his clutch of four were there to incubate. I could find nothing in the literature to explain this and although I wrote it up for the BNHS journal hoping someone would be able to throw some light, it never got published. It is only now, after reading a report by Stuart Butchart on his fascinating study of the bronze-winged jacana in Tamil Nadu, that I have come across a plausible explanation. He writes: “Not many years ago, biologists would have dismissed this behaviour as abnormal, or aberrant. But now we understand that these apparent anomalies are in fact highly significant behaviours with an adaptive basis. Although I don't have large enough sample sizes to test the idea statistically, it seems likely that these cases refer to occasions when males gained too small a share of the copulations to make it worth them caring for the clutch. Destructive though it may seem, they did better to refuse the clutch in order to force the female to lay another in which the male had a chance of fathering a larger proportion of the chicks in the brood.” By extending the argument, Butchart’s work also suggests that for jacanas not all the eggs incubated by a male will necessarily contain his offspring.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
("Copulation takes place on vegetation near the nest site. The female solicits the male by tipping forward
at an angle of 45º" (T.J.Roberts))

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
(He often stands on her back for over one minute even though only attempting copulation once" T. J. Roberts)
 
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Another remarkable feature of the jacanas’ breeding behaviour is that a male not infrequently will move the eggs from one nest site to another by rolling them across vegetation and through water. This was first photographed by Peter Jackson in Kashmir in 1959; nearly 21 years later Ashish Chandola and I were able to film and photograph the same activity at Kumana villu in Sri Lanka. The jacanas’ breeding season is in the rainy season and unfortunately it was particularly overcast and wet the day of the move!

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
(The male Jacana shifts nest, rolling the eggs through the water)
 
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

The chicks do not all hatch on the same day so the male keeps the nest as discreet as possible by removing the empty eggshells of the earliest hatchers.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
(When the first chicks hatch, the male will pick up the empty shell and remove
it to some distance from the nest)

So keen is he to do so, it appears sometimes as though he is helping the chicks to hatch: I have observed one trying to pick up the open shell while the chick was still inside; the chick was thus, slightly prematurely, tumbled out!

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

The chicks are nidifugous and do not require feeding. Jacanas eat insect larvae, mollusc and amphibia spawn as well as seeds and succulent parts of water plants; T.J. Roberts reports Mason and Lefroy’s stomach examination that revealed small bivalve molluscs and parts of water snails.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

But the chicks are in danger from a variety of predators, including snakes, crocodiles and birds, so the male remains attentive and with them for protection; sometimes even carrying them under his wings.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
(N. B. chick's legs under the wing)
 
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
copyright Joanna Van Gruisen
( As the male takes off the chick falls out from under the wing)

The chicks are also well camouflaged, with beautifully marked rust, brown and white down. They will react to their father’s warning calls by lying doggo but also have an additional ability to disappear into the water when required, with only the beak protruding; their long legs merge with the vegetation stems most inconspicuously.

Out of the breeding season the adult ptjs lose the ‘pheasant’ tail and the gold mantle turns to sand; the full breast becomes white and the overall effect is of a brown and white bird. The fledged youngsters are similarly attired and in the winter months the jacanas are gregarious and flock together in large numbers; Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley in the Handbook report flocks of 50 to 100 birds – I wonder if we could still see such numbers?

But the jacanas are not uncommon birds…: the ptjs are found in wetlands all across India, the rest of the sub-continent and through most of south and south-east Asia; the bronze-winged is a bit more restricted, not being found in Pakistan nor Sri Lanka but it is also a resident and may be found over most of India and in south and south-east Asia.

…but they have to be some of the most interesting species; and well worth extensive and detailed observation. They also have a number of different vocalisations and the resonant “me-onp” of a pheasant-tailed in the breeding season is, for me, one of the most melodious, haunting and bewitching calls of the avifaunal community (up there with the ruddy shelduck!)

Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus copyright Joanna Van Gruisen

Joanna Van Gruisen

January 2007

 
     
     
 

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