Jacana spinosanorthern jacana

Geographic Range

Northern jacanas (Jacana spinosa) range from Mexico to Panama, although they are sometimes seen into the southern United States. They occur mainly in coastal areas. In Mexico they are found from Tamaulipas on Gulf of California coast and Sinaloa on the Pacific coast south to western Panama. Northern jacanas are also found in the Antillean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and the West Indies. (Jenni and Mace, 1999; Kaufman, 1996)


Northern jacanas inhabit many types of wetlands including; ponds, marshes and lake margins. Pond edges with abundant floating vegetation are favored. Northern jacanas occasionally forage in wet grassy areas and flooded fields. (Jenni and Mace, 1999; Kaufman, 1996)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • temporary pools
  • coastal

Physical Description

Northern jacanas are medium sized wading birds with long legs and extremely elongated toes. Adults are relatively dark overall; they have a black neck, head and breast. The back, undersides, and tail are dark rufous. They have a yellow bill with a white base and a yellow shield on the forehead. Juveniles are bi-colored with a white underside and a darker back, head, and neck. Juveniles have a white supercilium and white lores. Both adults and juveniles have conspicuous yellow flight feathers that are visible when they raise their wings. Northern jacanas average 241 mm in length with a wingspan averaging 508 mm. Males were found to be significantly smaller than females. A study from Costa Rica showed that females weighted 145.4g and males weighed 86.9 on average. (Jenni and Collier, 1972; Sibley, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    86.9 to 145.4 g
    3.06 to 5.12 oz
  • Average length
    241 mm
    9.49 in
  • Average wingspan
    508 mm
    20.00 in


The breeding system in northern jacanas is unusual and is an example of polyandry. Both males and females will defend territories against other members of the same sex. Females mate with up to four individual males and lay eggs as frequently as every nine days. Males may be polygamous when new females arrive. When northern jacanas breed, males build platforms that are used for solicitation displays and copulation. The platforms are then used as nests. The female or the male may solicit to each other and this behavior leads to copulation. Solicitation is done by calling or posturing and it can be initiated by the male or the female. When the female assumes a pre-copulatory position, the male may fly up 10 meters or more before flying back down, landing on her back or landing alongside and hopping on her back. The male may initiate a mating event by assuming the pre-copulatory position and the female then joins him. Most copulation attempts are unsuccessful. When they are successful, the male gives distinct calls. Solicitation and copulation occur less often once a male has eggs in his nest, but may occur again when the young are 4 to 5 weeks old. (Jenni and Collier, 1972; Sibley, 2001)

Although northern jacanas are capable of breeding all year long, they usually breed at the beginning of the rainy season. During that time, females mate with up to four males and lay eggs as frequently as every nine days. Males may be polygamous when new females arrive, but extra pair copulations are not known to occur when the female holds her territory. When northern jacanas breed, males build platforms that are used for solicitation displays and copulation. The platforms are then used as nests. As in many other members of the order Charadriiformes, four eggs are typically laid per clutch. The male typically sits on the eggs and adds nesting material in the form of aquatic plants periodically. The female may visit the nest site on occasion and shade the eggs. The eggs hatch in around 28 days. The young leave the nest around 24 hours after hatching and will follow the male to good foraging spots. Because females may have several mates, some or all of the young that he raises may not be his. The development time in northern jacanas is slow; young fledge in around 8 weeks and may stay in their natal territory for more than 12 months. (Jenni and Collier, 1972; Jenni and Mace, 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Time between breeding efforts in males is not known.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding corresponds with the start of the rainy season, which varies throughout the species range.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    28 days
  • Average fledging age
    57.2 days
  • Range time to independence
    12 (low) months

In northern jacanas, males exclusively construct nests, incubate eggs, and care for the young. Females do not help to raise offspring generally, but may provide some defense against predators. Males build a nest on the platform that was used for solicitation and copulation. After the female lays eggs in the nest the male continues to build the nest by flinging material over his shoulder in the direction of the nest site. Brooding is mainly done in the morning and evening. During rainy conditions, cool temperatures and times of increased cloud cover, the amount of time spent brooding increases. The young leave the nest at about 24 hours after hatching. At that point the male leads the nestlings to good foraging sites and continues to protect them. (Betts and Jenni, 1991; Jenni and Mace, 1999; Sibley, 2001)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Little is known about lifespan in northern jacanas. One male held his territory for 6.5 years and had to be around 2 years old to have a territory in the first place. (Jenni and Mace, 1999)


Northern jacanas are highly social and frequently occur in small colonies with a dominant female and 1 to 4 males. Northern jacanas are diurnal and spend much of their time walking on emergent vegetation and searching for aquatic insects and seeds. They pick food off of the surface of plants, the surface of the water, or just below the water. Their feet are highly specialized for this foraging behavior. Their small size and large feet allow these birds to exploit this foraging habitat, as they can easily support their weight on surface aquatic vegetation. (Jenni and Collier, 1972; Kaufman, 1996)

Home Range

Northern jacanas have specific home territories that they use for breeding and feeding. Male territories averaged 0.36 acres and female territories averaged 0.88 acres at one site in Costa Rica. Female territories contain between one and four males, which they breed with. Females help in maintaining the territories of the males by intervening on behalf of the resident male when there is a territorial dispute with another male. If the female loses her territory to another female, then the newcomer will have access to the males in that territory. Male territories may last considerably longer than female territories. A male in Costa Rica held a territory for 6.5 years and the ownership by females changes 10 times in the same time period. (Jenni and Collier, 1972; Jenni and Mace, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Northern jacanas communicate with visual displays and calls. Repeated-note calls are given in a wide variety of situations. Notes with high amplitude, note length, and duration are used when the bird is under physical attack or when it can't fend off an intruding conspecific. The nature of the repeated note calls say a lot about the intention of the caller. Northern jacanas also communicate by giving groups of notes. This is most often given by males when his chicks are near. Flight calls are also given. Threat displays are given by outstretching the wings and pointing them forward. Males may do a submissive display in the presence of females in which they crouch down. During the submissive display the male swings his head laterally while the female pecks at the base of his neck. (Jenni and Mace, 1999)

Food Habits

Northern jacanas eat whatever insects they can glean off of aquatic plant surfaces. They turn over floating plants using their feet and bills while searching for insects hiding on the under-surface (Sibley 2001).They also eat flowers that are opened by purple gallinules (Porphyrio martinica) . Adults will occasionally take small fish. In a closely related species, wattled jacanas (Jacana jacana), the diet was made up of 20% seeds, with most seeds from spikerush (Eleocharis species), and 80% invertebrates, mainly insects. (Jenni and Collier, 1972; Osborne and Bourne, 1977)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • flowers


Possible predators include boa constrictors (Boa constrictor), spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus), snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and various raptors and mammals. Purple gallinules (Porphyrio martinica) are the most common predators of northern jacana eggs and offspring, they will take them out of nests when the male is away. For this reason, northern jacanas will attack purple gallinules when they see them in their territory. Attacks consist of aerial attacks and charging with wings spread on the substrate. Attacks are accompanied by repeated-note calls. (Jenni and Mace, 1999; Stephens, 1984)

Ecosystem Roles

Northern jacanas are presumably important secondary consumers in the marshy habitats they inhabit. At a 2.8 hectare pond in Costa Rica between 20 and 25 jacanas were present at a given time. Given the fact that they are relatively small, endothermic animals, they presumably have a high caloric requirement. Because of this, jacanas probably control insect populations. Northern jacanas also contribute to the energetic needs of purple gallinules (Porphyrio martinica). (Jenni and Mace, 1999)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Although northern jacanas provide no direct benefits to humans, they are certainly a source of enjoyment for naturalist and birders.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of northern jacanas on humans.

Conservation Status

Northern jacanas appear to be common throughout most of their range, but could become vulnerable with loss of wetlands. (Kaufman, 1996)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Ryne Rutherford (author), Northern Michigan University, Alec R. Lindsay (editor, instructor), Northern Michigan University.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


Betts, B., D. Jenni. 1991. Time budgets and the adaptiveness of polyandry in northern jacanas. Wilson Bulletin, 103: 578-597.

Jenni, D., G. Collier. 1972. Polyandry in the American Jacana. The Auk, 89: 743-765.

Jenni, D., T. Mace. 1999. "The Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa), The birds of North America Online" (On-line). Accessed April 08, 2008 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/467.

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American birds. Boston, NewYork: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Osborne, D., G. Bourne. 1977. Breeding Behavior and Food habits or the Wattled Jacana. The Condor, 79: 98-105.

Sibley, D. 2003. The Sibley Guide To Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sibley, D. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred. A Knopf.

Stephens, M. 1984. Interspecific Aggressive behavior of the Polyandrous Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa). The Auk, 101: 508-518.