Mystery bird : Pheasant-tailed jacana, Hydrophasianus chirurgus also known as the water-pheasant

Photos by Anu Kusumakar Kadri

This lovely southeast Asian mystery bird is unique. It is the only member of its genus,  Jacanidae family of wading birds that are readily identifiable by their huge feet and claws that have adapted them well to walk on floating vegetation in shallow lakes, their preferred habitat. Even though the jacanids can swim, they prefer to walk on floating vegetation.

The pheasant-tailed jacana is distinct because it has different plumages for the breeding and non-breeding seasons — unique in its taxonomic family. This individual is in non-breeding plumage. In breeding plumage, the central tail feathers grow very long, resembling a pheasant’s tail, which is how this bird got its common name. On the nape of the neck there is a patch of brilliant, gleaming gold feathers. The wings and underparts are dazzlingly white in flight in both plumages, as you can see in this photograph. Females are polyandrous and thus, they are slightly larger than the males and have brighter plumage colouring.

These birds are notable for the strong sharp spur on the bend of their wings. Additionally, the first flight-feather ends in a lanceolate (leaf-shaped) appendage, and the fourth and fifth flight-feathers are obviously elongated with an attenuated point. The toes are very long with long claws.

The pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) is a wader belonging to the family of jacanas, Jacanidae. The pheasant-tailed jacana species are distributed in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Taiwan and Oman. These jacana species have long legs and toes, an adaptation for the life on floating vegetation. These jacanas are monotypic species.

The pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) is the only jacana with breeding plumage. In breeding plumage it measures 40 to 60 cm in length, including its 25 to 35 cm tail. The female is slightly larger and weighs 190 to 230 grams whereas the male weighs 120 to 140 grams.

In breeding pheasant-tailed jacana, the body is blackish and the tail is long. The head is white with a black patch on the rear crown, which varies in size. A narrow black necklace line from the upper nape extends down to the upper breast, separating white front of the neck from the glossy golden rear neck.

The upperparts and lowerparts of pheasant-tailed jacana are blackish chocolate brown, with green or purple lustre. Except for the brown tertials, black tips of outermost secondaries and primaries and the black edges of three outer primaries, the wings are white. The tips of the outer primaries are elongated.

The tail of pheasant-tailed jacana is blackish and the two central pair of feathers are stiff, slightly down-curved and elongated. The bill is slender and is slaty-blue with yellow tip. The legs and toes are very long and are pale bluish gray. The breeding birds call is a mewing “m-e-e-ou” sound.

In non-breeding pheasant-tailed jacana, the upperparts are pale greenish brown and the underparts are white. The crown becomes blackish, the rear neck becomes brown and the golden area is reduced to a few patches.

A brownish black line from the lore region passes through the eyes, down the sides of the neck to join on the upper breast. The non-breeding jacana tail is shorter and white with greenish brown central feathers. The legs and toes are greenish-bluish.

Origin, geographical range and distribution
The pheasant-tailed jacana species are distributed in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Japan, Taiwan and Oman.

Vagrant pheasant-tailed jacana have been observed in Yemen, Qatar, Afghanistan and Australia. The Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) of these jacana species in Bangladesh are Tanguar Haor and Panabeel.

Ecosystem and habitat
These pheasant-tailed jacana species do not normally occur in forests. These species occur in altitudes from 0 to 3000 meters.

The natural ecosystems of these pheasant-tailed jacana species include wetlands like freshwater lakes, marshes, pools, ponds, swamps, peatlands and flooded grasslands.

Diet and feeding behavior
The diet of these pheasant-tailed jacana species is mostly insects. Floating insects, small molluscs and probably plant seeds are their primary food. They forage by walk over the floating vegetation or by swimming.

Reproduction and breeding habits
The breeding season of these pheasant-tailed jacana species is mainly in summer from March to July. The breeding season in South India coincides with the monsoon rains. In Sri Lanka, the laying season is from January.

These pheasant-tailed jacanas are polyandrous. They breed in freshwater lakes and ponds with emergent and floating vegetation. The nest is built with plant material. It may rest and float on water.

In one breeding season, a pheasant-tailed jacana female may lay up to ten clutches, to be incubated by several different males. The female pairs up and presents a clutch of 4 eggs to a male. A few days later the female pairs up with another male.

The brooding male pheasant-tailed jacana supporting itself with wings, scoops the eggs and keeps them warm between its breast and the underside of wings. If the nest is threatened by predator, rains or flood, the male may build another nest and move the eggs by carrying them one by one, wedged between the breast and bill.

Migration and movement patterns
The pheasant-tailed jacana species are partially migrant birds. The northern populations (China and Himalayas) of jacana migrate southwards for wintering. They move to southern Thailand, Malay peninsula, Sumatra, southeast and northeast india and Oman. The birds in higher altitudes may move to lower altitudes in winter.

The pheasant-tailed jacana populations in Sri Lanka, Philippines, central and northwest India, Myanmar, southern Pakistan, north Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Taiwan are resident.

Post breeding, the pheasant-tailed jacana juveniles may disperse and establish in new locations within the range. They may make local movements for feeding and breeding within their range. These jacana species also move in response to floods and drought.

Conservation and survival

The global population size of the pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) is estimated to be more than 100,000 individual birds. The overall population trend of these jacana species is considered to be decreasing. Throughout its range it is reported to be locally common. The generation length is 4.8 years. Its distribution size is about 19,700,000

The pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) does not approach the thresholds for being Vulnerable, either under the range size criterion or under the population trend criterion, or under the population size criterion. The ongoing habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation are the main threats that may endanger the survival of these pheasant-tailed jacana species.

Watch this video to see the beautiful Pheasant tailed jacana in non breeding plumage.

Here’s a video of an adult in breeding plumage, slowly wading in shallow water:

Fairy Princess Pheasant tailed jacana in its Breeding plumage.

Information source:

By Anu Kusumakar Kadri

Dear friends,
Thank you very much your valuable visit here. I'm Anu Kusumakar Kadri from Bangalore. A wildlife photographer, Bird cinematographer, nature lover, and explorer. Yoga teacher, mother of two teenagers, home maker. And new blogger.
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