White-breasted waterhen

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White-breasted waterhen
Amaurornis phoenicurus - Singapore Botanic Gardens.jpg
Adult in Singapore
Call at dusk, Bangalore
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Rallidae
Genus: Amaurornis
A. phoenicurus
Binomial name
Amaurornis phoenicurus
Pennant, 1769
White-breasted Waterhen.JPG
     approximate range

Erythra phoenicura

The white-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) is a waterbird of the rail and crake family, Rallidae, that is widely distributed across South and Southeast Asia. They are dark slaty birds with a clean white face, breast and belly. They are somewhat bolder than most other rails and are often seen stepping slowly with their tail cocked upright in open marshes or even drains near busy roads. They are largely crepuscular in activity and during the breeding season, just after the first rains, make loud and repetitive croaking calls.[2]


Amaurornis phoenicurus

Adult white-breasted waterhens have mainly dark grey upperparts and flanks, and a white face, neck and breast. The lower belly and undertail are cinnamon coloured. The body is flattened laterally to allow easier passage through the reeds or undergrowth. They have long toes, a short tail and a yellow bill and legs. Sexes are similar but females measure slightly smaller. Immature birds are much duller versions of the adults. The downy chicks are black, as with all rails.

Several subspecies are named for the populations that are widely distributed. The nominate subspecies is described from Sri Lanka but is often widened to include chinensis of mainland India and adjoining regions in Asia, west to Arabia and east nearly to Japan. The remaining subspecies are those from islands and include insularis of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, midnicobaricus of the central Nicobars, leucocephala of Car Nicobar, maldivus of the Maldives, javanicus of Java and leucomelanus of Sulawesi and the Lesser Sundas.[3][4]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Their breeding habitat is marshes across tropical Asia from Pakistan east to Indonesia. They are mainly seen in the plains but have been known from the higher hills such as in Nainital (1300m) and the High Range (1500m) in Kerala.[5][6] These large 32 cm long rails are permanent residents throughout their range. They make short distance movements and are known to colonize new areas. They have been noted as some of the early colonizers on the volcanic island of Rakata.[7][8] Although most often found near freshwater, they are also found near brackish water and even the seashore when there is no freshwater as on the volcanic Barren Island in the Andamans.[9]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Immatures have only traces of white on the front

These birds are usually seen singly or in pairs as they forage slowly along the edge of a waterbody mainly on the ground but sometimes clambering up low vegetation. The tail is held up and jerked as they walk. They probe with their bill in mud or shallow water, also picking up food by sight. They mainly eat insects (large numbers of beetles have been recorded[9]), small fish (which are often carefully washed in water), aquatic invertebrates and grains or seeds such as those of Pithecolobium dulce.[10][11] They may sometimes feed in deeper water in the manner of a moorhen.[12][13][14][15]

The nesting season is mainly June to October but varies locally. They nest in a dry location on the ground in marsh vegetation, laying 6-7 eggs. Courtship involves bowing, billing and nibbling. The eggs hatch in about 19 days.[16] Both sexes incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks. Chicks often dive underwater to escape predation.[9] Adults are said to build a roost or brood nest where young chicks and the adults roost.[17]

Singapore, Oct 1994

Many rails are very secretive, but white-breasted waterhens are often seen out in the open. They can be noisy especially at dawn and dusk, with loud croaky calls. The Andamans population insularis is said to make duck like quack calls.[9]

In culture[edit]

Local names of this bird are often formed by onomatopoeia (based on the sound it makes), for example ruak-ruak in Malay and korawakka in Sinhala.;[18] although differently formed local names are also not uncommon, such as "Dahuk" in Bengali (used in Bangladesh and the Bengali-speaking areas of India) , "Dauk" (ডাউক) in Assamese, "Gur-gu-aa" in Boro and "Vo-kurwak" in Karbi. In Odisha it is called as "Daahuka" in Odia (ଡାହୁକ). In maharashtra it is called as "pankombadi"(पाणकोंबडी) or kuak kombadi (कुवाक कोंबडी) in marathi. In Malayalam they are called 'kulakozhi'(കുളക്കോഴി). They are also called “kanbili” in The Maldives.[citation needed]. In Kannada they are called 'hundukoli' (ಹುಂಡುಕೋಳಿ). In Tamil they are called "Kaanaangkozi (கானாங்கோழி)[19]

The naturalist writer Eha humorously describes the call of this species:[20] "It began with loud harsh roars which might have been elicited from a bear by roasting it slowly over a large fire, then suddenly changed to a clear note repeated like the coo of a dove."



Cuoc Nguc Trang.jpg
  1. ^ BirdLife International (2016). "Amaurornis phoenicurus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T22692640A95217833. Retrieved 7 April 2021.
  2. ^ Boyes, Steve (October 7, 2012). "Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week #23". National Geographic Voices. National Geographic Society. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  3. ^ Rasmussen PC & JC Anderton (2005). Birds of South Asia. The Ripley Guide. Volume 2. Smithsonian Institution & Lynx Edicions. p. 142.
  4. ^ Abdulali, Humayun (1964). "Four new races of birds from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 61 (2): 410–417.
  5. ^ Robertson, Andrew (1990). "Some altitudinal records of birds from the High Range, Kerala". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 87 (3): 456.
  6. ^ Smetacek, Victor (1974). "On the increasing occurrence of typically plains-birds in the Kumaon hills". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 71 (2): 299–302.
  7. ^ Zann, R.A.; Darjono (1992). "The birds of Anak Krakatau: the assembly of an avian community". GeoJournal. 28 (2). doi:10.1007/BF00177240.
  8. ^ Buden DW & S Retogral (2010). "Range Expansion of the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) into Micronesia". The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. 122 (4): 784–788. doi:10.1676/10-012.1.
  9. ^ a b c d Ali, Salim & S.D. Ripley (1980). Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Volume 2 (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Oxford University Press. pp. 169–172.
  10. ^ Relton, A.; Moses, A. Alagappa; Wesley, H. Daniel (1991). "Addition to the dietary of Whitebreasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus (Pennant)". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 88 (2): 282.
  11. ^ Mason CW (1911). Maxwell-Lefroy, H (ed.). Memoirs of the Department of Agriculture in India. Volume 3. The food of birds in India. Imperial Department of Agriculture in India. p. 252.
  12. ^ Sugathan, R; Rajan, S Alagar (1988). "Notes on feeding behaviour of Amaurornis phoenicurus at Point Calimere". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 85 (1): 191.
  13. ^ Balachandran, S (1988). "Some observations on unusual feeding behaviour of Whitebreasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 85 (3): 615–616.
  14. ^ Baker, E C S (1929). Fauna of British India. Birds. Volume 6 (2nd ed.). London: Taylor and Francis. pp. 23–25.
  15. ^ Blanford, W T (1898). Fauna of British India. Birds. Volume 4. London: Taylor and Francis. pp. 173–174.
  16. ^ Dhindsa, Manjit S.; Sandhu, P.S.; Toor, H.S. (1983). "Some observations on the breeding of the Chinese Whitebreasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus chinensis (Boddaert)". J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 80 (1): 213–214.
  17. ^ Gopakumar, P.S. & P.P. Kaimal (2008). "Loss of wetland breeding habitats and population decline of White-breasted Waterhen, Amaurornis phoenicurus phoenicurus (Pennant) - A case study". In Sengupta M & Dalwani R (eds.). Proceedings of Taal 2007: The 12th World Lake Conference. pp. 529–536.
  18. ^ Anonymous (1998). "Vernacular Names of the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent" (PDF). Buceros. 3 (1): 53–109.
  19. ^ பறவைகள்: ஓர் அறிமுகக் கையேடு. ப. ஜெகநாதன் & ஆசை (2013). க்ரியா பதிப்பகம். சென்னை. பக்கங்கள் 184. Jeganathan, P & Asai (2013). Paravaikal: arimugak kaiyedu.(a photographic field guide on birds in Tamil). Cre-A, Chennai. Pp. 184.
  20. ^ Whistler, Hugh (1949). Popular handbook of Indian Birds. Gurney and Jackson. pp. 437–438. ISBN 1-4067-4576-6.

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