The breeding season of the Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus) reduces every other event at the wetland to a tawdry sideshow. Flush with hormones and flaunting their nuptial plumage, these once-dowdy marsh dwellers take centre-stage.
Unusual among the majority of birds, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas exhibit polyandry, a reversal of sexual roles in which a female seduces and maintains a harem of males, each faithfully guarding and incubating a clutch of her eggs. Females also guard their territories, and their males, jealously although some agonistic reactions (fighting, threat displays) and promiscuity are often observed. It is the male’s duty to maintain the nest, raise the young, and provide food.
Polyandry is common among jacanas, as well as a few other species of birds like buttonquails, phalaropes, and painted-snipes. As a documented avian behaviour, it is the exception rather than the norm. Role reversal is not all that ridiculously simple, though. A study of breeding Pheasant-tailed Jacanas found that “male pheasant-tailed jacana might undergo strong male competition for access to female through courtship, but may also cooperate with or tolerate co-mates in order to increase mate and resource defense.”
While taking delight in their spectacular romance, I also like to listen for the Pheasant-tailed Jacana’s love song — a deep, carrying mewling sung with a belly voice. Breeding duties done and dusted, the birds will revert to their unremarkable non-breeding suits.
Until next season.