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White-breasted
Waterhen

Amaurornis phoenicurus
Gallinula phoenicurus,
Ruak-Ruak, Uwak-Uwak, Ayam-Ayam (Malay)


White-breasted Waterhens are the most common of the Rail family in Singapore, often heard before they are seen. Their loud quarrelsome calls sound like their Malay name, Ruak Ruak. They are more vocal at dawn and dusk.

white breasted water hen from the rearWhite-breasted Waterhens eat mainly seeds, insects and small fish. They also nibble on worms and small snails; and snack on shoots and roots of marsh plants. They forage on the ground, pecking at titbits in chicken-like movements, hence their other Malay name: Ayam Ayam. Their enormous feet, constantly flicking tails and inquisitive nature make them very amusing birds to observe.

They also often forage above ground, in low bushes and small trees, but their long toes make them rather clumsy among the branches. Their slender body allows them to quickly and quietly slip through the undergrowth.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Large (33cm); upperparts black; white face, belly; chestnut flanks and undertail coverts; bill green or yellow, red at the base; legs yellowish green. Genders look alike.
white breasted water hen
Juvenile: Dirtier looking, overall grey-brown; upperparts browner; white replaced by dark grey; bill grey.

Call: Described as a dawn chorus lasting several minutes of frog-like croaking and grunting followed by regular u-wak. Also a soft, hollow hoop repeated monotonously; alarm call is a high-pitched hik.

In flight: Flies with legs dangling.

Similar birds: Common Moorhen: their juveniles look similar. But the Common Moorhen's has a white under tail covert while the White-breasted Waterhen's is cinnamon.

Status in Singapore: Very common resident throughout the island, including North and South offshore islands.

World distribution: Resident and common in India through southern China, Southeast Asia to the Philippines and Bali.

Classification: Family Rallidae (Rails). World 142 species, Singapore 11 species.
white breasted waterhen walking on lotus leavesIn Sungei Buloh, White-breasted Waterhens can be seen stepping on lotus leaves searching for titbits. But inevitably, the leaf they are on slowly sinks. They then step off to the next leaf. Although they are associated with water and do swim, they are not particularly good swimmers.

White-breasted Waterhens forage alone or in pairs. They are active during the day. When alarmed, may fly or run into dense undergrowth, dashing in with their heads down. They roost in low bushes and trees at night.
Breeding: White-breasted Waterhens breed throughout the year. They nest amongst reeds, tall grass or dense undergrowth in both wet and dry habitats. Made about 1-2m above ground, the nest is a shallow cup-shaped pad of twigs, creeper stems or leaves. Or made out of bent over or interlaced tall grass stems topped with a thin lining of grass or weedy materials. Sometimes, it is roofed by surrounding plants.
white breasted water hen with chicks (seeking permission for use)
Black fluffy chicks
Photo from
Morten Strange
4-9 eggs are laid. The eggs are dull brownish-white/grey with reddish brown spots and marks. Both parents incubate (20 days). The chicks are black and fluffy and leave the nest soon after hatching. Both parents care for them, and they may be seen running alongside the parents.
White-breasted Waterhens prefer habitats with dense undergrowth near water both brackish and freshwater. They are quite common in mangroves, marshes, reedbeds to grasslands and cultivated areas (ricefields, orchards, gardens, parks). They often "commute" between suitable habitats by using man-made water channels.

Migration: Some White-breasted Waterhens that breed in the north may migrate south and mix with local residents. Northern birds tend to be larger.

Status and threats: White-breasted Waterhens have adapted well to human activity and are not endangered. However, they are sometimes still hunted as food, and occasionally get run over by cars.
cheeky waterhen in a bin

cheeky waterhen jumping out of the bin
The cheeky bird even forages inside the Park's dustbins!

REFERENCES
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Nature's Niche
  • Morten Strange, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Malaysia and Singapore: including Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Borneo", Periplus, 2000 (p. 97: description, voice, habits, distribution, status, photo).
  • Morten Strange, "Tropical Birds of Malaysia and Singapore", Periplus, 2000 (p. 16: habits, habitat, photo).
  • David R Wells, "The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Vol. 1 (Non-Passarines)", Academic Press, 1999 (p. 198-199: identification, distribution map, habits, habitat, migration, conservation).
  • Morten Strange, "Birds of Southeast Asia: A photographic guide to the birds of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia", New Holland, 1998 (p. 23: photo, facts).
  • Lim Kim Seng and Dana Gardner, "Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore", Sun Tree., 1997 (p. 50: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, diagram, number of species).
  • W H Davison and Chew Yen Fook, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", New Holland, 1995 (p. 29: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, photo).
  • Morten Strange and Allen Jeyarajasingam, "Birds: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing, 1993 (p. 78: description, distribution, habits, habitat, photo).
  • Clive Briffett, "A Guide to the Common Birds of Singapore", BP Science Centre,1992 (p. 56: habit, habitat).
  • Christopher Hails, "Birds of Singapore" illustrated by Frank Jarvis, Times Editions, 1987 reprinted 1995 (p. 64-65: habits, description, status in Singapore, and lovely drawings of the birds).
  • Lim Kim Seng, "Pocket Checklist of the Birds of the Republic of Singapore", Nature Society (Singapore), 1999 (Abundance, status, Chinese and Malay names).
  • M W F Tweedie, "Common Birds of the Malay Peninsula", Longman,1970 (p. 7: description, distribution, habits, habitat, drawing).
  • G C Madoc, "An Introduction to Malayan Birds", Malayan Nature Society, 1947 (p. 26-27: description, habits, habitat).
  • Sir John A S Bucknill and E N Chasen, "Birds of Singapore and South-East Asia", Tynron Press, 1927, edition 1990 (p. 70-72: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, field notes on habits, drawings).
  • "Handbook of the Birds of the World: Vol 3: Hoatzin to Auks", Lynx Edicions, 1996 (p. 182: identification, distribution map, habits, habitat, migration, conservation).
 
By Ria Tan, 2001