The Jacana's Good Fortune

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

It's amazing how quickly a reversal of fortunes can occur. A moment of bad luck, with disastrous results, reversed by a stroke of unimaginable good fortune. I saw an example of this on our recent trip to Africa.

We were in Botswana, a land-locked country, lying at the heart of southern Africa. Specifically, we were in a region called the Okavango Delta. It's a river delta that culminates in the desert, many miles from the sea. This oasis is crammed with life and is considered one of the most incredible wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, with a huge diversity of fauna and flora.

The largest inland delta system in the world, it's filled with channels, lagoons, swamps and islands. A safari in this area incorporates time in camps where activities are water-based, land-based or a combination of the two. They offer completely different experiences and different species of animals that may be seen. Our friends, Gail and Scott, and Donna and myself were experiencing a water based activity in this environment, each couple in a mokoro. A mokoro is a type of canoe commonly used in the Delta. It's propelled through the water by a paddler standing in the stern and pushing with a long pole, in the same manner as punting. For the two passengers seated on the bottom, forward in the boat that sits low in the quiet waters, it's a smooth, gliding, magical ride. Mokoro paddlers are trained naturalists and must be licensed to do their job. It's a wonderful way to explore the waterways. The biggest concern though involves hippos. They are notoriously aggressive animals. They harbour a particular dislike for a mokoro traveling in channels that in many cases are hippo paths. The hippo would be the winner in any such confrontation.

To complete the scene for what follows, we were taking a break in our explorations, standing alongside one of the larger channels that cut through the marsh. It was late afternoon and we knew we needed to be back at the lodge before sunset when the hippo danger increases dramatically. As we stood there, perhaps startled by our voices or movement, an African jacana took off from the reed bed on the opposite shore. It was probably flying to its overnight rest spot. An African jacana is a small wading bird, about 30 cm in length. It is recognizable by its very long legs and huge feet, allowing it to walk on floating vegetation. The other protagonist in this action was an African Marsh Harrier. This raptor is about 45-50 cm long and its main prey are small rodents, field mice and vlei rats; also fish and frogs. Perched in a tree along the water, this Marsh Harrier saw the chance for a much larger meal. It swooped from above and hit the smaller jacana in a violent, explosive, mid-air strike. Probably jarred by the impact of the collision with a bird not much smaller than itself, the Marsh Harrier lost its grip on the jacana. The jacana plummeted to the water below, as the Marsh Harrier struggled to regain control and with powerful wing strokes gained enough altitude to circle and land back in the tree.

Our guide, Barobi, was amazed by the scene we had just witnessed. He'd never seen such an attack and believed it was a 'once in a lifetime' event to see. Our mokoro navigator suggested he take us across the channel and search for the downed jacana. He said he thought he knew where it had landed. Amazingly, around a bend in the channel, 100-150 m away from where we had watched the drama unfold, he found the stricken bird. It had sunk below the surface of the water, near the shoreline. With great skill, he maneuvered the mokoro beside the bird, reached down into the water and gently lifted it into the boat.

Now, think about this. This quiet, innocent, little jacana, perhaps tired and exhausted from a long day of jumping from lily pad to lily pad, searching for insects, decides it's time to go home for the evening. Oblivious to the danger lurking above him, perhaps partially blinded by the still bright sun, sinking low in the sky, he leaps into the air and lifts off. Slowly he rises above the reeds beneath him. Then, out of the blue, completely blind-sided, he is struck. Stunned and disoriented, he has no idea what has happened. The pain lessens slightly when the talons that first gripped him, release, but he falls through the air, hits the water and slowly sinks beneath it. Weak and in shock, he cannot last long. Disaster has struck. But, then, a hand encircles him, gently lifts him from the water and can you believe this? There's not just one, there are TWO veterinarians there to attend to him! A thorough exam revealed no major injury. Given a few minutes to rest, recover from the shock of the strike and make certain the Marsh Harrier had quit the scene and he is released. The jacana flies off, safely homeward bound. It must have made him a believer in miracles! Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at