One may not know where it is placed in the pecking order, but there is no doubt that it is an attractive bird, graceful and elegant, of an amiable disposition and making for a fine target for hunters and poachers. It is easily sighted near water bodies. Say hello, then, to this comely water bird – the white breasted water hen.
Ku-waak, ku-waak is how these birds call out to one another, their cries resonating at dawn, dusk and many a time even at midnight. The face, neck and breast are covered in white, the upper parts and flanks are dark grey and it has a cinnamon-coloured lower belly and under tail. It has long legs and long toes. The bill and legs are yellow in colour. Both male and female are alike, with the male bigger than the female, and they live in pairs.
Courtesy the rain pool in my backyard, I have seen and observed these birds closely, recording some of their daily behaviour. Skirting the edge of the rain pool these water hens walk carefully on fallen twigs and floating water vegetation, moving on to the next before the last one sinks. Their short, thick tails are held up and jerk as they walk. They climb gracefully over bent acacia trunks above the water body. During the monsoon, as water insects come out and move around the acacia tree trunk, the water hen runs towards them and kills them in one peck. Early mornings and evenings are when they take a 10-minute bath, splashing water with a bit of preening. On sighting human beings they quickly slip through the acacia thickets or fly to another tree with long legs trailing behind.
After the rains they start to breed. They are known to lay up to nine eggs. The eggs hatch in about three weeks. They are territorial even in rain pools. When an intruder water hen comes close, it is fiercely chased and driven away.
Both the male and female are involved in nest building. In the rain pool, I saw the parents bringing fallen twigs from water bodies and climbing to the dense acacia treetops, seven metres above the ground. The nests cannot be seen easily and are made of grass, twigs and leaves. I have seen these birds pull long bush climbers and bind them together to cover the nest.
In September this year I saw the parents search for food and feed two of their young ones under the shade of the acacia tree. The young ones are black and fluffy, similar to house chicks with long legs. They usually pick food by sight. The mother turns leaves over and catches insets and worms in one peck, the young one comes running and takes it from the mother’s bill and goes off on its own to find something interesting. Sensing threats, they often move into the foliage and do not hesitate to fly or go deep into the water. A month later, only one young water hen was seen, having grown considerably in that time. The body colour had changed from black to grayish but it still lacked the red spot on its face.
Water hens live in harmony with other water birds like the common moor hen, the purple moor hen, spotbilled ducks, jacana and little grebes and herons, mostly fearing only the shikra.
Eating is a day-long activity, feasting as they do on a wide variety of things like seeds, grains, insects, small fish, and aquatic invertebrates. Early in the morning, a feast was laid out for them — corn, grains, puffed rice, oats, groundnut, coconut gratings and biscuits. If they were given bread, they would dip it in water before eating it. Since I fed them at the same time each morning, the birds awaited my arrival.
But things are not always hunky dory. Hunters lay nets to snare these birds. They are shot at too. Once, a few boys killed three of them with a catapult and roasted them over an open fire.
Government initiatives and tribal resettlement have put an end to the killings.
Wonder how many I will see when the next big rain pool forms.