Northern Jacanas, American or Middle American Jacanas or Mexican Jaçanas

Northern Jacana


Overview ... Alternate (Global) Names

Distribution / Habitat ... Subspecies, Ranges and ID

Description ... Calls / Vocalizations

Breeding / Nesting ... Diet / Feeding

The Northern Jacanas (Jacana spinosa) are wetland birds with a range that stretches from southern USA south to Central America.

They are known by a variety of names, including American or Middle American Jacanas, Mexican Jaçanas or, simply, Jaçanas.

Jacanas spend a good part of their days on floating vegetation as they feed on insects on the surface of vegetation and the ovules of water lilies.

In Jamaica, these medium-sized waders are commonly referred to as "Jesus Birds" based on their habit of walking on floating vegetation in shallow waters, giving them the appearance to walk on water.

For this same reason, these birds have also been nick-named "lily trotters".

The physical traits that allow them to "walk on water" are ...

  • small body size (only about the size of a robin), in combination with
  • long, slender toes that spread out to cover an area of 4.7 - 5.5 inches (12 - 14 cm) thus dispersing the weight over a large area.

Another peculiar aspect of this species is that the dominant female is polyandrous (mates with several males) - and she is often referred to as "the prostitute bird." She is also not the primary care takers of the young. The male incubates the eggs, and feeds and protects the young.

Northern Jacanas (Jacana spinosa) - Adult with chick

Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa) Distribution / Habitat

Northern Jacanas are distributed from southern Texas south through coastal Mexico - along the Gulf slope from Tamaulipas on Gulf of California to Yucatan and on the Pacific slope from Sinaloa to the south - to western Panama. They are also found on the islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola and the West Indies. Vagrants have been reported in Arizona.

Jacanas are resident (non-migratory) within their range and maintain home territories for feeding and breeding. They aggressively defend their territories using as weapons the spurs on the bend of the wing.

These birds are native to the following ...

Islands: Belize, Cuba, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Jamaica

Countries: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador; Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, United States


Fresh water marshes, swamps, pond edges, roadside ditches, lake margins, river beds and lagoons with aquatic vegetation

May occasionally be seen in flooded fields or wet grassy areas


From sea level to 4,000 feet or ~ 1200 meters

Subspecies and Ranges:

The three are very similar in appearance.

  • Northern Jacana, American Jacana (nominate) (Jacana spinosa spinosa - Linnaeus, 1758)
    • Range: Belize and Guatemala south to western Panama
  • Jaçana, Mexican Jacana, Mexican Jaçana, Middle American Jacana or Northern Jacana (ssp. gymnostoma) (Jacana spinosa gymnostoma - Wagler, 1831)
    • Range: Mexico, from south central Sinaloa and central Tamaulipas south to Chiapas, the Yucatán Peninsula and the island of Cozumel. A small number of them are found in southeastern Texas.
  • West Indian Jacana (Jacana spinosa violacea - Cory, 1881)
    • Range: Cuba, Isle of Pines, Jamaica and Hispaniola

Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa) - note the yellow spur on the wing

Northern Jacana Description:


Length: 6.7 - 9.4 inches or 17 - 24 cm.

Weight: 3.1 - 5.1 oz (87 - 145 g)

Wingspan: averages 20 inches or 51 cm

Gender ID

The larger females are about twice as big as males.

Plumage Details / Adults

  • Back, under plumage and tail are dark brown / chestnut
  • Head, neck and chest blackish
  • Greenish-yellow patches on wings
  • Pale green / yellow flight feathers (yellow mostly visible in flight or when they raise their wings)
  • Long legs with long toes
  • Pale green flight

Other Physical Details / Adults

  • Black eyes
  • Long, bright yellow bill (with a white base) that extends up to form a shield-like plate on the forehead
  • Rounded wings
  • Long, sharp spur on the wings
  • Greyish or dull-yellow legs
  • Extremely elongated toes

Juvenile Description

  • Bi-colored plumage - with white underside and a darker back, head and neck
  • Paler bill
  • White supercilium ("eye brows") and white lores (feathers covering the ears).
  • Crown and stripe behind the eyes is brown
  • Olive-brown back
  • Dark brown flanks
  • Dull yellow flight feathers
  • Frontal shield reduced or absent.

Similar Species

This species is very similar to the Wattled Jacana, Jacana spinosa, with which it overlaps in Panama, and was formerly considered conspecific with that form (of, or belonging to, the same species). The Wattled can be identified by its red frontal shield and a reddish rictal wattle. They also lack the slight brownish tint to the belly plumage of Northern Jacana. Immature birds are more difficult to identify as they basically look alike; and the only distinction is the shape of the frontal shield.

Northern Jacanas (Jacana spinosa)

Diet / Feeding

They feed on insects, other invertebrates and seeds picked from the floating vegetation or the surface of water. They also turn over aquatic plants as they search for insects hiding underneath. Also feed on flowers and small fish.

Breeding / Nesting

Breeding Season: May breed throughout the year (as long as water levels are constant); but most breeding is observed at the start of the rainy season, which varies throughout the range.

Mating System: Females mate with up to four males during the reproductive season. Males may mate with other females, when new females come into their area; however, in most cases females will hold and protect their territories against other females. The male takes care of the nest and the chicks, whilst the female guards her territory and the males in it.

Nest Building: The male constructs floating platform nests on the water

Average number of eggs in a clutch: 3 - 5 (average 4).

Incubation: The male broods the eggs for about 28 days to hatching

Chick Care: The young leave the nest at about 24 hours after hatching and they are able to swim, dive and feed shortly after they hatch. For about two months, the male will teach them to forage for insects, mollusks, worms and fish. The young are completely independent when they are about 12 months old

Protective "dads" are known to carry their chicks under their wings to safety when danger approaches. The female may assist in protecting the nest. If the conditions are favorable, the female may get started on a new clutch, when the chicks are 12€“16 weeks old.

Calls / Vocalizations / Sounds

Their vocalizations are described as " harsh €œjik€ calls that progressively speed up to a chatter; and a whistling gnashed cui cui cuic cui cui.

Alternate (Global) Names

Chinese: ???? ... Czech: Ostnák trnitý ... Danish: Nordlig Jacana ... Dutch: Jacana, Leljacana ... Estonian: kuldlauk-lootoselind ... Finnish: Amerikanjassana ... French: Jacana à ailes jaunes, Jacana du Mexique, Jacana roux ... German: Gelbstirn-Blatthühnchen, Gelbstirnjassana, Jassana ... Irish: Seacana sporeiteach ... Haitian Creole French: Doktè ... Italian: Jacana del Centroamerica, Jacana spinosa ... Japanese: amerikarenkaku ... Norwegian: Gulpannebladhøne ... Polish: dlugoszpon zóltoczelny, d?ugoszpon ?ó?toczelny ... Russian: ?????????? ????? ... Slovak: jakana ostnatá ... Spanish: Gallito, Gallito de agua, Gallito de Agua Mejicano, Gallito de Dedos Largos, Jacana Centroamericana, jacana frente-amarilla, Jacana Norteña / Mesoamericana / Norteño ... Swedish: Centralamerikansk jacana

Species Research by Sibylle Johnson


Please Note: The articles or images on this page are the sole property of the authors or photographers. Please contact them directly with respect to any copyright or licensing questions. Thank you.