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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 as a native species to Singapore and is also found in many different countries.2  According to the IUCN Red List, this species is catagorized as Least Concern (LC), but in Singapore, it is considered as a Common Resident.1 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 the coastal areas, parks and the offshore islands of Singapore (Figure 3).1

Figure 3: Distribution of White-breasted Waterhen (indicated by the red landmarks) in Singapore (Google Maps image made by Sameen with information from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum).1

Global Distribution

The White-breasted Waterhen is also native to several countries (Figure 4).3

Figure 4: Distribution of White-breasted Waterhen across Asia. Range data originally sourced from BirdLife International and NatureServe (2011).6



Figure 5: Adult White-breasted Waterhen. (Taken by Mohamad Zahidi Hamid and labelled by Sameen)

The adult White-breasted Waterhen can be identified by its yellow legs, light green bill, red vent and grey plumage all over its body except for the face, throat and abdomen which are white (Figure 5).7


Figure 6: White-breasted Waterhen juvenile. (Taken from Lee Chiu San and labelled by Sameen)

Juveniles have plumage which is an intermediate of the adult and chick, and can be distinguished from adults by their size and brown feet (Figure 6).8


Figure 7: White-breasted Waterhen chick. (Photo taken by Mohamad Zahidi Hamid and labelled by Sameen)

The White-breasted Waterhen chick can be identified by it black downy feathers, black legs and absence of white colouration at the throat and abdomen (Figure 7).7



Figure 8: 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 in Singapore.1 However, this species has been declining in abundance since 1986.9 A possible reason for its decline could be habitat loss due to land reclamation along Singapore's coasts.7


Figure 9: White-breasted Waterhen feeding on a mollusc. (Photo taken by Dr Amar-Singh HSS)

The White-breasted Waterhen is an omnivores bird with a varied diet consisting of insects, worms, aquatic snails, molluscs, small fish, grass seeds and water plants.1

Foraging Behaviour

Figure 10: White-breasted Waterhen foraging for food. (Photo courtesy of Kieron Gabriel Ng)

The White-breasted waterhen has three main foraging strategies, and the strategy that used depends on the location of their feeding habitat, size and diet.10 These strategies 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 that might be foraging in the area.10


Figure 11: Predators of the White-breasted Waterhen. (Top Left: Malayan Water Monitor, Top Right: Domestic Cat, Bottom Left: Crested Goshawk, Bottom Middle: Black-winged Kite feeding on a White-breasted Waterhen chick, Bottom Right: Brahminy Kite. Photos taken by Ria Tan, Sameen, Francis Yap, Francis Yap and Samson Tan respectively. Photos compiled by Sameen).

The White-breasted Waterhen is preyed upon by Malayan Water Monitor (Varanus salvator), Domestic Cat (Felis catus), Crested Goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus), Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) and Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus).11


Water is essential for the breeding and rearing of chicks as adults have been found to feed their chicks only in the area of land that is wet, thus egg nests and brood nests are found near water bodies.7

Pair Formation

Figure 12: White-breasted Waterhens fighting. (Photo taken by Pathmanath Samaraweera)

Vigorous calls and fights occur among both the male and female birds in the morning and evening during breeding season and this eventually leads to pair formation.7 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.7

Egg Nest

Figure 13: 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.7 The pair then proceed to make nests and eggs are laid consectively in the morning once the nest is completed.7 The breeding pair is also more aggressive in defending their territory after egg-laying.7 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.7

Brood Nest

Figure 14: Adult 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.7 One parents would roost with the chicks in the brood nest.7

Taxonomy and Systematics

Early Description 

Figure 15: Early description of White-breasted Waterhen by Pennant (1769) that was published in Indian Zoology (1790).12

In Figure 15, the White-breasted Waterhen is described as the "Red-Tailed Waterhen (Gallinula phoenicurus)" which is a synonym for Amaurornis phoenicurus.13


The White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) was originally described by Pennant in 1769 and the syntype series consisting of four syntypes can be found in the Natural History Museum in London, under the name "Red-Tailed Waterhen (Gallinula phoenicurus)" (Images not available).14


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

                  Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant, 1769)

Phylogenetic Relationships

The White-breasted Waterhen belongs to the family Rallidae, also known as the "family of wading birds".15 It also belongs to the genus Amaurornis and according to prior morphological analyses, this genus is considered polyphyletic (derived from more than one common evolutionary ancester or ancestral group).15 Species of birds found in the genus Porzana are often confused with the species found in Amaurornis because the distinctions between these two genera are poorly defined, and this often leads to confusion.15 There have also been instances where some species of Amaurornis were previously placed in Porzana and vice versa.15 To resolve this confusion, a study was conducted in 2012 to determine the phylogenetic relationships among the Asian rails found in Rallidae.15 This study was conducted using mitochondrial DNA sequences of Cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) and cytochrome b (CYTB) sequences.15 The sequences were aligned using Clustal W, Maximum Parsimony analysis and Bayesian anaylsis, and the tree in Figure 14 was obtained.15

Figure 16: Maximum likelihood tree. Numbers over branches reflect branch support obtained from maximum parsimony/Bayesian/maximum likelihood analyses. 15

17 species of birds were used for the analyses, namely the Brown Crake (Amaurornis akool), Baillon’s Crake (Porzana pusilla), Ruddy-breasted Crake (Porzana fusca), Band-bellied Crake (Porzana paykullii), Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea), White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus), Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), Swinhoe’s Crake (Coturnicops exquisitus), Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), Common Coot (Fulica atra), Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus), Okinawa Rail (Gallirallus okinawae), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) and the outgroups comprising of the Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus), Great Bustard (Otis tarda), Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) and Yellow-legged Buttonquail (Turnix tanki).15

Four well supported clades were obtained from the study (Clade 1 to 4 in Figure 14 respectively), and thus the study was able to resolve the phylogenetic relationships amongst the rails studied.15 They were also able to confirm that the genus Amaurornis was polyphyletic and show that the closest relative to the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) was the Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) (Figure 16).15


Ref Notes
1 Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, 2018. Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant, 1769). Available at: Accessed on 11 November 2018. [ a b c d e f g ]
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 ]
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 BirdLife International and NatureServe (2011). White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). Available at: Accessed 11 November 2018.
7 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 ]
8 Lee, C. S. (2013). In-between White-breasted waterhen – Bird Ecology Study Group. Available at: Accessed 21 November 2018.
9 Lim, K. S. (2015). Annual Bird Census 2015. Singapore Bird Group. Available at: Accessed 27 November 2018.
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 The Biodiversity of Singapore (2018). Amaurornis phoenicurus. Singapore biodiversity online. Available at: Accessed 27 November 2018.
12 Rosie Curran (2016). Indian zoology: Pennant, Thomas, 1726-1798. n 50009492. Internet Archive. Available at:  Accessed 11 November 2018.
13 Encyclopedia of Life. (n.d.). White-breasted Water Hen - Amaurornis phoenicurus - Synonyms - Encyclopedia of Life. Available at: Accessed 11 November 2018.
14 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
15 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 d e f g h i j k ]

This page was authored by Sameen
Last curated on 27th November 2018

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