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Topic : Land Birds

Article 32 bullet 01 July 2007

African Jacana, the aphid farmer?

by Guy Upfold

The African Jacana is well known for  it’s: a) ability to carry its young under its wings to safety, b) amazing large feet enabling it to walk over lily pads and floating plants (hence other name Lily Trotter), 3) its beautifully painted eggs and 4) the fact that that it is a polyandrous breeder where the male alone incubates and rears the young.

male African Jacana tending eggs

Male African Jacana tending its painted eggs

On a farm dam in Amatikulu, St Kitts Estate I was photographing a male African Jacana sitting on 3 eggs. I wasn’t sure when the eggs were laid so went down every day and spent a while photographing and watching in the hope I would catch the male carrying the newly hatched chicks to a safe place.

chicks being called tother to be carried three chicks being carried

Young Jacana chcks being called to safety then carried away under the male birds wings

On about the 3rd day before the chicks hatched I noticed the bird pulling young water lily leaves together in 3 different places quite near the nest about 5m away. I thought it was making ‘mock’ nests as a form of protection.

Aphids on lilly bud young lilly leaves pulled together

A young bud covered in aphids and young lily leaves pulled together (aphid farm)

The chicks hatched successfully and the bird kept them in the nest vicinity for at least 5 days after hatching. It was carrying the chicks backwards and forwards to the piles of lily leaves it had gathered. It also kept pulling new fresh leaves towards its leaf ‘stockpiles’. It was only after 2 days of trying to get photos of the bird carrying the chicks that I noticed the leaf stockpiles were covered in aphids and the chicks were feeding on them furiously. While they were eating the male bird pulled new young leaves to the Aphid ‘farm’ it was creating.

Male Jacana carrying chicks

Male African Jacana carrying chicks over the lilly pads

The question here is was the bird consciously farming aphids or was it coincidence that the aphids happened to colonize the hiding patches or mock nests the bird was making for its young. It seemed to me that the jacana was actively creating a breeding ground for the aphids in the vicinity of its nest.  



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