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White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) 

(Pennant, 1769)

Figure 1: 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 both natural and urban habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and even canals.1 It has a loud, distinctive call that can often be heard in the evenings (Figure 2).1 This bird is considered a native species in Singapore and is also found in many different countries.2  According to the IUCN Red List, this species is catagorized as Least Concern (LC).3

Figure 2: Call of the White-breasted Waterhen (Taken from Lena Chow)4


The genus name 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.5


Singapore Distribution

The White-breasted Waterhen is usually found near water bodies, such as coastal areas, canals and offshore islands of Singapore.

Figure 3: Distriburion of White-breasted Waterhen in Singapore (Taken from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum).6

Global Distribution

Figure 4: Distribution of White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) across Asia. Range data originally sourced from BirdLife International and NatureServe (2011).7

The White-breasted Waterhen is native to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Republic of Laos People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Province of China, Thailand, Vietnam,United Arab Emirates, Christmas Island, Hong Kong, Macao, Timor-Leste and the British Indian Ocean Territory.3


Descriptions were taken from Gopakumar and Kaimal (2008).8


Figure 5: 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 5).8


Figure 6: Juvenile White-breasted Waterhen. (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 6).8



Figure 7: 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.8 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.9

Foraging Behaviour

Figure 8: White-breasted Waterhen foraging for food. (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.10 These startegies are foraging and feeding while walking (to capture insects), while wading (to consume mollusks and fish) and while running.10 They maximize foraging after overnight fasting at night by foraging actively before noon, with peak feeding obeserved during early morning.10 After the first bout of feeding, these birds would then hide to avoid conflicts with other birds.10


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.8

Pair Formation

Figure 9: 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.8 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.8

Egg Nest

Figure 10: White-breasted Waterhen pair in their nest. (Photo taken by Millie Cher)

The breeding pair then look for nesting sites and occupy and defend their territory early in the breeding season.8 The pair then proceed to make nests and eggs are laid consectively in the morning once the nest is completed.8 The breeding pair is also more aggressive in defending their territory after egg-laying.8 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.8

Brood Nest

Figure 11: 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.8 One parents would roost with the chicks in the brood nest.8

Taxonomy and Systematics


A hierarchical summary of the taxa within which the White-breasted Waterhen is placed is provided below:3

                  Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant, 1769)

Original Description (Pennant, 1769)

Figure 12: Original description of White-breasted Waterhen (Pennant, 1769), published in Indian Zoology (1790).11 In Figure 12, the White-breasted Waterhen is described as the "Red-Tailed Waterhen (Gallinula phoenicurus)" which is a synonym for Amaurornis phoenicurus.12


The White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) was originally described by Pennant in 1769 and four syntypes can be found in the British Museum in London, under the name "Red-Tailed Waterhen (Gallinula phoenicurus)".13

Phylogenetic Relationships

Figure 13: Maximum likelihood tree. Numbers over branches reflect branch support obtained from maximum parsimony/Bayesian/maximum likelihood analyses.14

Mitochondrial DNA sequences of Cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) and cytochrome b (CYTB) sequences were aligned using Clustal W (with default options), Maximum Parsimony analysis and Bayesian anaylsis and and the tree in Figure 13 was obtained.14 Four well supported clades are obtained and these results show that the genus Amaurornis is polyphyletic, and Amaurornis phoenicurus is closely related to Gallicrex cinerea.14


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 c d ]
4 Chow, L. (2011). Call of the White-breasted Waterhen – Bird Ecology Study Group. Bird Ecology Study Group. Available at: Accessed 21 November 2018.
5 Jobling, J. (2010). Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: A & C Black, p.43.
6 Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, 2018. Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant, 1769). Available at: Accessed on 11 November 2018.
7 BirdLife International and NatureServe (2011). White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). Available at: Accessed 11 November 2018.
8 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 ]
9 Kumar, P. and Gupta, S. K. (2010). Diversity and Abundance of Wetland Birds around Kurukshetra, India. Our Nature, 7(1).
10 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 ]
11 Rosie Curran (2016). Indian zoology: Pennant, Thomas, 1726-1798. n 50009492. Internet Archive. Available at:  Accessed 11 November 2018.
12 Encyclopedia of Life. (n.d.). White-breasted Water Hen - Amaurornis phoenicurus - Synonyms - Encyclopedia of Life. Available at: Accessed 11 November 2018.
13 Gray, G. (1844). List of the specimens of birds in the collection of the British Museum. 3rd ed. London: Printed by the order of the Trustees, p.123.
14 Ruan, L., Wang, Y., Hu, J. and Ouyang, Y. (2012). Polyphyletic Origin of the Genus Amaurornis Inferred from Molecular Phylogenetic Analysis of Rails. Biochemical Genetics, 50(11-12), pp.959-966. [ a b c ]

This page was authored by Sameen
Last curated on 15th November 2018

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