A lily-trotting beauty
Thursday, Dec 12, 2002 Hindu Network
The pheasant-tailed jacana, a wetland bird that lives on floating vegetation, has been nesting and breeding at the Madhavaram and Manali jheels for years... but recent developments in these areas pose a threat to their existence.
A pheasant-tailed jacana in eclipse or non-breeding plumage
MOST WILD birds gawk and startle at the sight and sound of human beings; then they pick up their steps and depart. The pheasant-tailed jacana cannot be classed among such birds. It has a high tolerance threshold and would feed unperturbed just 20 feet from people fishing or washing linen. The proof of this statement can be found at the Madhavaram jheel (a shallow lake). Of the eight species of jacanas distributed over Africa, America and Asia, two are found in India one is the pheasant tailed jacana and the other bronze-winged jacana. The bronze-winged jacana is slowly fading from the scene, thanks to habitat loss. Until the early 1980s, this species was to be found at the Manali and Madhavaram jheels. While the pheasant-tailed jacana has survived the depredations of development activity around the Manali-Madhavaram jheel eco-system, its cousin has not because it suffers from a "lower tolerance threshold".
The Manali and Madhavaram jheels are the only known breeding habitat of the pheasant-tailed jacana. The breeding season synchronises with the South-West monsoon. Some birds breed even as late as November. This year, the South-West monsoon has not been copious enough for the jacanas to start breeding and nesting activity at Madhavaram and Manali. While the Madhavaram jheel does not have much water, the Manali jheel is bone-dry. During the North-East monsoon months, pheasant-tailed jacanas congregate in fairly large numbers at the Pallikaranai marsh for feeding. A few could be spotted at the Adayar and Korattur wetlands too. Jacanas are wetland birds that live on floating vegetation such as lily, lotus and rushes. Jacanas can scamper over floating vegetation with ease and grace, thanks to their elongated toes. This perambulatory felicity has earned the bird the name "lily-trotter".
A pheasant-tailed jacana in breeding plumage
These birds feed on the wetland insects, larvae, tadpole, small fish and freshwater crustaceans that are found on the aquatic vegetation. Economy defines the jacanas' nesting activity - their nest is nothing more than a few strands of grass placed over a floating leaf. The jacanas place their eggs in such a way that they do not roll into the water. Jacanas are polyandrous. In other words, the female mates with more than one male and leaves each male with the task of incubating and nurturing the nestlings. The nestlings are precocious and keep stride for stride with the parent bird, just hours after hatching. When danger lurks nearby, the parent bird gives forth an alarm call. Getting the signal, the nestlings "freeze". The nestling is so coloured that it slides well into the floating vegetation.
Jacanas' enemies are rodents and herons. While the rodents foraging along the water edge take the jacanas' eggs, diurnal-feeding herons take the nestlings. At the Madhavaram and Manali jheels, the jacanas face an added threat - from the Shikra hawk. This pigeon-sized bird of prey relishes feeding on the chicks of pheasant-tailed jacanas, moorhen and waterhen.