Africa, southern Asia, Pacific islands, Australia, Mexico, Central and South America


Wetlands, in floating vegetation, especially water lilies

The amazing lily-trotter

Jacanas are colorful water birds with long legs and incredibly long toes and claws. The super-long toes spread the bird’s weight over a large area. This allows them to walk across floating vegetation, especially lily pads. Jacanas often appear to be walking on the water itself! They are also good swimmers and divers, and can journey through open water from one area of vegetation to another.

Handsome birds

Some jacana species, such as the northern jacana and the wattled jacana, have a chestnut- to cinnamon-colored body, with yellow to greenish-yellow flight feathers, a dark brown or black neck and head, and a yellow bill. The African jacana also has a chestnut body, but its neck and head are white in front and black in back, with a golden-yellow breast.

The Madagascar jacana has the same colors as the African jacana, but with the neck and head colors exactly reversed. There is even a pheasant-tailed jacana with (what else!) a long tail like a pheasant. Female jacanas are generally larger than the males.

When spread out, a jacana’s toes and claws can cover an area up to 5 by 8 inches (12 by 20 centimeters).
Pheasant-tailed and northern jacana males pick up the empty shell of their newly hatched chick and fly several yards (meters) away before dropping it. This may keep predators away from the nest.
Female jacanas can be almost twice as large as the males.
Other names for the jacana include lily-trotter, lotus bird, and Jesus Christ bird.

Our first jacanas, Peruvian wattled jacanas, came to us from a zoo in Florida in 1960. Since then, we have also exhibited African and comb-crested jacanas.

Currently, we do not have any jacanas in our collection.

Most jacana populations are stable at this time, although the demise of wetlands through agriculture and livestock grazing threatens populations in some areas. The Madagascar jacana Actophilornis albinucha is listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This species is losing its aquatic areas due to overfishing and rice cultivation. And, like all water birds in Madagascar, it is hunted by humans for its meat.

You can help us bring other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.