White-breasted waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)

GenusAmaurornis (1)
SizeLength: 28 - 33 cm (2)
Male weight: 203 - 328 g (2)
Female weight: 166 - 225 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The white-breasted waterhen is a large and distinctive rail species with dark grey upperparts and flanks, and conspicuous white underparts, from which the species gains its common name. The face is also white, and the rear flanks and underside of the tail are reddish-brown. The beak is yellowish, with a reddish base, but becomes more olive outside of the breeding season (2) (3) (4) (5). The long legs are yellowish, with large, rather ungainly-looking feet (3) (4) (5), and the legs are dangled in flight (3). The female white-breasted waterhen is generally smaller than the male, with a somewhat duller beak, while juveniles have duller plumage, with the white of the underparts tinged brown, and a darker beak and legs (2) (5). This species is described as being very noisy during the breeding season, producing a loud call consisting of various grunts, roars, quacks and chuckles, followed by a repeated kru-ak, kru-ak, kru-ak-a-wak-wak that may continue for 15 minutes or more (2) (3 (4) (5). It also produces a sharp, metallic pwik call (4) (5).

Three subspecies of white-breasted waterhen are generally recognised: Amaurornis phoenicurus phoenicurus, Amaurornis phoenicurus insularis and Amaurornis phoenicurus leucomelana (6), with some also recognising a fourth, Amaurornis phoenicurus midnicobaricus (2). The subspecies are separated mainly by the extent of grey on the head and flanks (2) (5), and by the colour of the underparts, which are more olive in A. p. midnicobaricus (2). However, there is considerable variation between individuals, and some populations show intermediate head patterns (2).

The white-breasted waterhen is found throughout the Indian subcontinent (including the British Indian Ocean Territory) and South East Asia, as far as the Lesser Sundas, Indonesia (2) (3) (5) (7). Although a resident species in most of its range, northern populations may move south in winter, and may also range west to Arabia (2) (7). The white-breasted waterhen appears to be extending its distribution northwards into Japan (2).

This species inhabits a range of wetland habitats, wherever water is surrounded by a certain amount of thick cover (4). It has been recorded in marshes, swamps, bamboo stands, wet scrub, on the shores of rivers, ponds and lakes, in forest edges and clearings, in mangrove swamps, and even in scrub and bushes far from water. In addition, it often uses habitats close to human settlement, including agricultural fields (such as rice paddies), sewage ponds, village ponds, parks and gardens (2) (3) (4).

Not a particularly shy bird, the white-breasted waterhen often forages in the open. Food is taken from the ground (2) (4), but the waterhen will also climb into bushes and trees (2) (3), and is able to swim (2). When on the ground, it moves with a striding walk, often jerking the tail (3), and, if disturbed, tends to run into cover rather than taking flight (4). This species has a varied diet which includes insects, worms, spiders, molluscs and even small fish, as well as grass seeds and the roots and shoots of marsh plants (2) (3) (4).

The breeding season of the white-breasted waterhen varies depending on location, and in some places the species may breed year-round (2). Normally seen alone or in pairs, or sometimes in small groups (2) (3), it is described as being quite aggressive, with fights often occurring (4). The nest is built on the ground or in tangled vegetation (2) (3), on a shallow, cup-shaped pad made from twigs, stems and leaves (2). The female lays between 4 and 9 eggs, which are incubated by both the male and female for around 20 days. The chicks are covered with black down and leave the nest soon after hatching, being fed and cared for by both the adults (2).

The white-breasted waterhen is a common species with a widespread distribution, and is not known to face any major threats. It is not currently considered at risk of extinction (7), and has even extended its range in some areas (2).

There are currently no specific conservation measures in place for this attractive waterbird.

For more information on conservation in India see:

To find out more about conservation in the British Indian Ocean Territory and other UK Overseas Territories, see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Grewal, B., Harvey, B. and Pfister, O. (2002) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India and the Indian Subcontinent, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and The Maldives. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  4. Whistler, H. (1963) Popular Handbook of Indian Birds. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh.
  5. Robson, C. (2007) New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. New Holland Publishers, London.
  6. Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (August, 2010)
  7. BirdLife International (August, 2010)