White-breasted Waterhens: What they eat, where they live and when they were eaten!

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“A discussion thread on one of Dato’ Dr Amar Singh HSS’s old posts prompted me to write this update on the dietary habits of the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) and its culinary possibilities.

White-breasted Waterhen in threat pose (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)
Adult in threat pose (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)

“Let’s start with the last topic. In the early 1960s, when I was living in a somewhat rural village when there were still such things in Singapore, many of the residents supplemented their diet with wildlife. White-breasted Waterhens, being relatively abundant, and sufficiently large to be worth cooking, were considered fair game.

“At that time, most drains in Singapore were not concrete lined. They were simply channels dug into the earth. Plants grew on both sides, and rubbish was often discarded directly into them. Waterhens loved this environment, and scavenged readily on household scraps.

“Trapping them was simple. A series of nooses made from fishing line were strung at about the height of the birds, and cooked rice was spread as bait. It usually did not take a trapper long to get a plateful of waterhens for dinner.

“Fast forward to today. Thankfully, waterhens are still relatively abundant, though nowhere as plentiful as they were then. In the 1990s, I lived in a typical suburban housing estate, and saw waterhens in the somewhat run-down canal next to my house. But when that canal was enlarged, improved and lined with concrete, the waterhens disappeared.

“After retiring a decade ago, I moved to a district which, though still considered suburban, is somewhat less developed (if you believe that there are such places left in Singapore). My house, one in a dead-end road with a row of only 11, is bordered by an expressway behind, and a huge expanse of yet-unused, former British military land on the other side.

“The first thing that I did upon moving in was to install some ponds in the garden, not custom-built koi ponds, but simple fibreglass and PVC vats sunk into the ground. I planted water lilies and other aquatic vegetation. And waterhens showed up.

Adult White-breasted Waterhen feeding (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)
Adult feeding chick (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)

“Over the last few years, one pair has become very dominant. This pair has raised many batches of chicks, and I have observed their feeding habits within my garden. I make no claims to speak about what other waterhens do, but I am recording my long-term observations of TC and Mother Hen, the pair that have taken up residence here.

“When I first stared observing them, a number of waterhens used to come and go. But about five years ago, I noticed one bird that stood out. It was exceptionally tall, noticeably larger than the rest, self-confident and aggressive. For convenience, I referred to it as Tyrannosaurus Chicken, or TC for short.

“I strongly believe that a wild animal population can only be sustained if there is sufficient food. And if there is more food, there is more wildlife. Therefore, I make no apologies for the fact that I feed wildlife – birds, squirrels, skinks and monitor lizards, though I draw the line at wild boars, which do come around some times.

“Fortunately, my house is the first one on the street, with absolutely no neighbours on three sides. And my immediate neighbour also happens to be an animal lover, though she also does not like the wild boars, which steal her vegetables.

“If wildlife becomes dependent upon you for food, you have to be reliable. Which means that the supply of food must be regular. When my wife and I go away, my nephew comes round to make sure that food is always served on time for all animal visitors.

“I do stroll around our neighbourhood, and note that the waterhen population is declining. This is because of so-called developments and improvements.

“Due to the recent Dengue and Zika scares, the government has made exceptional efforts to make sure that there are no bodies of water anywhere around for mosquitoes to breed in. All drains in my neighbourhood have been cleaned and upgraded. The few low-lying areas that allowed the growth of marsh vegetation have been filled.

“An office block some distance across the road is now tenanted. The vegetation on its grounds is now trimmed. And government-employed grass cutters come around every week to ensure that all grass verges are neatly trimmed. This has deprived waterhens of many of the places where they used to live.

“So, though other waterhens have vanished, TC and Mother Hen continue to hang on, and raise brood after brood of chicks.

White-breasted Waterhens: What they eat, where they live and when they were eaten!
Eating grass seeds, possibly Buffalo Grass, Paspalum conjugatum (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)

“What do they eat? I am quite sure that they used to catch their own insects and forage for grass seeds (above). But with these being more scarce, they depend more and more on my twice-daily handouts.

White-breasted Waterhen in threat pose (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)
Feeding on birdseed (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)

“Morning and evening servings would consist of equal parts of good quality chicken feed and birdseed (above). I go through about a kilogram of both in total each day. When food is laid out, Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) and Javan Mynahs (Acridotheres javanicus) would usually be the first to arrive. The alighting of the flying birds would be the signal for TC to saunter in. He comes from the hedge in the garden of the block of offices. When he marches in, the rest of the birds scatter. Those who do not move off are given not very subtle hints to make themselves scarce.

“Mother Hen will follow shortly. The two of them always seemed to prefer to eat birdseed rather than the formulated commercial chicken food, even though that is the diet of choice of many of the other birds, including the doves.

“If there are chicks, the little black balls of fluff accompany TC and Mother Hen to the breakfast and dinner buffet.

White-breasted Waterhen feeding on water snails (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)
Foraging for water snails (Photo credit: Lee Chiu San)

“And when there are babies, they show more clearly why they were known as waterhens. With chicks around, they spend more time in my garden. They loved my lily ponds and would spend hours splashing in them. They also foraged actively for water snails (above), though I never saw them make any attempts to catch the fish.

“The chicks also nibble on the seeding heads of lawn grasses. I am no expert on vegetation, but perhaps our webmaster can identify the species of grass in the photo.

“TC is very protective of the chicks up to about the time when they start to show adult plumage. Then he would tell them in no uncertain terms to move out.

“Very sadly, I don’t think that their survival rate is high. There are not that many places within walking or short flying distance to which waterhen chicks can move to.

“However, one chick was exceptional. It was so large that my wife asked if I was feeding a waterhen or an Emu? The Emu did not move far.

“Yes, size matters, especially among waterhens. TC could not throw the Emu all the way out.

“While TC dominated the front garden, the Emu took up residence at the back of my house, where the potted plants that are not in bloom are kept until they flower again and can be moved to the front for display.

“The backyard is also where I feed the cats, and store my fish food. Pretty soon, the Emu was helping himself to cat food. He seems to prefer this to bird seeds. He also loves mealworms, and would follow me around to scrounge for some when I went to feed the fish, the Field Frogs (Fejervarya limnocharis) and the Skinks (Eutropis spp.). Though Field Frogs are supposed to be nocturnal, they do become rather tame, and will show up for food if fed at regular times, even in the day. If you put food out for a large Skink every day, pretty soon it will come to you. But I must caution against trying to touch or handle them, because they object strenously, and they have a hard bite!

“As for monitor lizards, they are not fed on a regular basis, but they are around and know when to come for food. One regularly warms itself up from the heat discharged by my air conditioner. They have an extremely good sense of smell. Whenever we have meat scraps, or fish scraps from the kitchen, when one of my pet fish dies, when we pick up road kill, or when we trap a rat, we put it out in the far corner of the garden, always in the same place. Usually, a monitor lizard will take the offering. If not gone by the first day, when the smell gets stronger, it will be taken.

“Both my neighbour and I plant banana plants in the backyard, and my neighbour also has rambutan and chiku (Sapodilla). When the latter are fruiting, I have seen the Emu scavenging for fallen fruits. And the Emu has been seen up the banana trees when the fruits are ripe.

“So there you have it! White-breasted Waterhens have a truly omnivorous diet that comprises seeds, fruits, snails and insect larvae. They will also eat whatever tastes good to them, such as cat food and dog food. And surprisingly, they seem to have a strong preference for seeds over what I thought were tastier table scraps.”

Lee Chiu San
Singapore
9th June 2017

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