This jacana leg situation is actually adorable


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 19 May 2020
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Meet the jacanas, a family of wading birds that are spread across Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Australia.

That might look like a poor little waterbird with a horrifying number of extra legs, but the good news is it’s a perfectly healthy jacana and those are its babies’ legs, dangling from its chest.

Which doesn’t actually sound much better, but rest assured, this is all fine.

The jacanas are a family of wading birds that are spread across Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Australia.

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There are just eight known species, and they’re easily identifiable for having extremely long, thin toes, which allow them to walk across lily pads and other floating vegetation with ease.

While they all have those expansive feet – it’s where they got the nickname Jesus birds from – and a lovely almond-shaped body, jacanas are surprisingly diverse.

In Australia we have the comb-crested jacana (Irediparra gallinacea), found in the freshwater wetlands of northern and eastern Australia, particularly along the coast. Its range runs from the north-eastern Kimberley in Western Australia to the Cape York Peninsula then down along the east coast to the Hunter region of NSW.

The species, which sports a distinctive red wattle on its forehead, is also found in New Guinea and Southeast Asia.

Another great jacana is the pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus), which occurs throughout tropical India, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia.

Look at how elegant it is:

A pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) standing on lilypads
A pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus). Image credit: Dasari Vijay

But back to the issue at hand: what’s with all those feet?

Jacanas are unusual birds in that the females are typically larger than the males and the males are responsible for brooding the eggs. They do it by nestling the eggs between their wings, hugging them close to their body for warmth.

Once the eggs are hatched, the chicks are born into a dangerous world – skipping across lily pads all day means they’re exposed to whatever is lurking beneath, which, if you’re an African jacana, means crocodiles. Upon sensing danger, the parent bird – usually the male – will signal to its chicks to assume position under its wings, and whisk them away, legs dangling in rather ridiculous fashion:

In early 2019, a woman in Maryborough, Queensland spotted a comb-crested jacana carrying its chicks to safety and got some great pictures.

We’ll leave you with some footage of a comb-crested jacana carrying some very tiny chicks sway at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve in the Northern Territory: