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White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) 

(Pennant, 1769)

Figure 1: An adult White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). (Photo courtesy of Kieron Gabriel Ng)

Table of Contents


The White-breasted Waterhen is a bold bird that can be often seen foraging openly in a wide range of habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and even in urban areas such as canals.1 It has a loud, distinctive call that can often be heard in the evenings.1 This bird is considered as both a common resident and a migrant in Singapore and is also found in many different countries.2  According to IUCN Red List, this species is catagorized as Least Concern (LC).3


The generic epithet Amaurornis is derived from the Greek words amauros, meaning dusky or brown, and ornis meaning bird, while the specific epithet phoenicurus is in reference to its red tail.4


Figure 2: Distribution of White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) across Asia. Range data originally sourced from BirdLife International and NatureServe (2011).5


Descriptions were taken from Gopakumar and Kaimal (2008).6


Figure 3: An adult White-breasted Waterhen. (Photo courtesy of Kieron Gabriel Ng)

The adult White-breasted Waterhen can be identified by its yellow legs, light green bill and grey feathers all over its body except for the face, throat and abdomen which are white (Figure 3).6


Figure 4: An adult White-breasted Waterhen with a chick. (Photo taken by Mohamad Zahidi Hamid)

The juvenile White-breasted Waterhen can be identified by it black downy feathers, black legs and absence of white colouration at the throat and abdomen (Figure 4).6



Figure 5: White-breasted Waterhen exploring a grass patch (Photo taken by Sameen)

This species has been recorded in a wide range of habitats such as wetlands, mangroves, marshes, coastal areas, grasslands, gardens, parks and canals.1 3 However, this species has been reported to decline in number due to the loss of the habitat caused by human intereference.6 Some of their natural habitats, such as wetlands and mangroves are being lost due to human activities such as land reclamation, drainage for agricultural activites and pollution in the form of sewage and litter.7

Foraging Behaviour

Figure 6: An adult White-breasted Waterhen foraging. (Photo courtesy of Kieron Gabriel Ng)

The White-breasted waterhen has three main foraging strategies, and the strategy they use depends on the location of their feeding habitat, size and diet.8 These startegies are foraging and feeding while walking (to capture insects), while wading (to consume mollusks and fish) and while running.8 They maximize foraging after overnight fasting at night by foraging actively before noon, with peak feeding obeserved during early morning.8 After the first bout of feeding, these birds would then hide to avoid conflicts with other birds.8


Water is essential for the breeding and rearing of chicks in the White-breasted Waterhen, therefore egg nests and brood nests are found near water bodies.6

Pair Formation

Figure 7: A pair of White-breasted Waterhens fighting. (Photo taken by Pathmanath Samaraweera)

Vigorous calls and fights occur among the birds in the morning and evening and this eventually leads to pair formation.6 Once the pairs have formed there is a long courtship period which includes bowing, billing and nibbling displays. Finally, the male mounts the female at the end of the courtship period.6

Egg Nest

Figure 8: A White-breasted Waterhen's nest with eggs. (Photo taken by Jaysukh Parekh “Suman”)

The breeding pair then look for nesting sites and occupy and defend their territory early in the breeding season.6 The pair then proceed to make nests and eggs are laid consectively in the morning once the nest is completed.6 The breeding pair is also more aggressive in defending their territory after egg-laying.6 Both parents participate in incubation of the eggs, which can last from between 19 to 21 days, and all eggs hatch on the same day.6

Brood Nest

Figure 9: Parent White-breasted Waterhen with chicks. (Photo taken by Dr Amar-Singh HSS)

Once the eggs have hatched, the breeding pair proceeds to make a brood nest, which is larger than the egg nest, within its territory.6 One parents would roost with the chicks in the brood nest.6

Taxonomy and Systematics



Taxonomic Confusion?

Phylogenetic Relationships


Ref Notes
1 Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, 2018. Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant, 1769). Available at: Accessed on 11 November 2018. [ a b c ]
2  Singapore Birds Project, n.d. White-breasted Waterhen. Available at: Accessed on 11 November 2018.
3  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (2018). White-breasted Waterhen. Available at: Accessed 11 November 2018. [ a b ]
4 Jobling, J. (2010). Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: A & C Black, p.43.
5 BirdLife International and NatureServe (2011). White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). Available at: Accessed 11 November 2018.
6 Gopakumar, P. S. and Kaimal, P. P. (2008). Loss of Wetland breeding habitats and population decline of White-breasted Waterhen, Amaurornis Phoenicurus Phoenicurus (Pennent)-A Case Study. Proceedings of Taal 2007: The 12th World Lake Conference, pp.529-536. [ a b c d e f g h i j k l m ]
7 Kumar, P. and Gupta, S. K. (2010). Diversity and Abundance of Wetland Birds around Kurukshetra, India. Our Nature, 7(1).
8 Akhtar, S., Kabir, M. M., Begum, S. and Hasan, M. K. (2015). Activity pattern of white-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) at Jahangirnagar university campus, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladesh Journal of Zoology, 41(2), p.189. [ a b c d ]

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