These Birds Have Massive Feet and Some Very Unusual Mating Habits

Juvenile Northern Jacana. Image: Wikimedia CC

Jacanas or “Jesus birds” are known around the world for their enormous feet and claws, which they use to effortlessly saunter across floating vegetation. Their long, thin toes spread weight evenly over a large area, which allows them to traipse along lily pads and other floating plants in search of fish, mollusks, crabs, and insects.

Their feet and claws can measure up to nearly 3 inches, which is enormous in comparison to their small size. Jacanas can also artfully grasp the edges of plants with their toes to turn them over in search of food, which is plentiful throughout the shallow lakes and marshes where these big-footed birds wander.

But their feet are far from the strangest things about these birds.

A male jacana carries his chicks in his plumage, thanks to specially-adapted wings.

When it comes to mating and child-rearing, jacana society is quite unusual.

Jacanas are polyandrous, meaning females mate with multiple males. The females, which are larger than males, can lay many clutches of eggs in a single breeding season, but young jacanas are often killed by predators, which could be one reason for wanting to breed as much as possible.

Males handle all parenting duties, constructing nests for the females to choose from, incubating the eggs and then rearing the young once they hatch. Remarkably, they even carry chicks around in their plumage when they perceive a threat nearby — which explains the head-scratching image above.

This leaves the females free to form harems of as many as five males and to compete with each other for mates, often displaying territorial and aggressive behavior like destroying other females’ eggs and killing their chicks to free up the care-taking males. Yikes.