Water(hen) in the (bird) brain

on 17th February 2014

“Our good web-master once posted an article of mine on this website about attracting kingfishers to urban gardens LINK.

“As a follow-up to that, I decided to do this piece on:
1. How to build water features that will bring birds to small urban spaces.
2. What kinds of plants and other life forms will flourish.
3. The types of birds that have visited my minute water bodies.

“For any environment to be sustainable there must be water. This was ingrained into me by the veterinarian Dr. Tan Hwa Luck, who inducted me as a volunteer to help maintain the ecologically-friendly features at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, a green building in Yishun, Singapore, where our good webmaster had inspired another piece of educational gardening.

“The Khoo Teck Puat Hospital’s water features are vast, and attract a good variety of birdlife. But even the small ones in my homes bring in feathered friends.

“Apart from koi ponds, I will talk about examples that have been set up within several small spaces within my garden. Each example that I will discuss occupies no more than 3 meters by 5 meters. Such an area can be allocated even in postage-stamp sized Singapore landed homes. Only one of them will be sufficient to attract birds.

“This article will cover: 1. Containers (Shape and Size); 2. Location; 3. Maintenance; 4. Filtration; 5. Substrate and Planting; and 6. Livestock and Pests.

Containers: “If you want to splurge, go ahead and build a huge concrete koi pond. But such expenditure is not necessary. I have raised lots of aquatic life and had visits from lots of birds using either fibreglass or high-quality PVC containers purchased off-the-shelf from fish shops and plant nursery sales centres. Fibreglass lasts practically forever. Good-quality PVC, the kind they make trash cans out of, has so far lasted in excess of six years in my gardens, with no sign yet of imminent failure. I have to warn that simple plastic containers and basins, the kind you buy in hardware shops, break down and crack within a year or two. Fibreglass containers are relatively expensive, costing about Singapore $400 to S$600. PVC containers cost about one quarter of that for the equivalent size.

Shape and size “Containers are available in all kinds of fancy shapes, though I have confined myself to simple rectangles. The shape is not as important as the size. No outdoor ecosystem can be viable with less than 200 litres of water. Anything less becomes too warm in the direct sun, and will not have enough water to properly dilute the biological wastes that will surely be produced by living things. Most of my containers offer a surface area of between one to two square meters, and have depths ranging from 20 to 50 cm. They contain between 200 to 500 litres of water apiece. 50 cm is about the maximum depth for a pond to support plants and a natural ecosystem. I also do have some much larger water bodies, but those are primarily for keeping fish.

Location: “Place the water containers in locations that are accessible so that they can be easily maintained. The maintenance required is minimal, but it must be done once in a while. When maintenance becomes difficult, you will tend to put it off. And when the place looks a mess, you will be even more reluctant to tackle the job. Easy maintenance, done regularly, is best. I have located all my water containers close to drains. I simply use a hose to siphon the dirty water into the drain.

Note that these pools are very close to a drain, into which water can be easily siphoned.

“Try as far as possible to avoid trees and bushes that shed lots of leaves. You do not want to be scooping rubbish out of the water all the time.

In-ground or above ground?: “For aesthetic reasons I like to sink my water containers into the ground. They look more natural that way, and, though it is purely my personal opinion, I think that birds come more readily to ponds in the ground rather than tubs jutting out above ground. Sinking the containers into the ground, and the resultant contact with the soil, also keeps them cooler, which is an advantage in Singapore. Be careful though, not to sink the rims of the containers flush with the ground. Always make sure that they stand out to form a kerb of perhaps 5 to 10 cm above ground level. This is to ensure that mud, garden fertiliser, insecticides and other contaminants do not wash into your ponds. You can hide the kerb by building up an embankment of sand, pebbles or garden soil against it and planting some foliage.

The kerb is clearly visible in the tank in the background. The kerb of the one in the foreground has been covered with Alternanthera plants.

Maintenance: “I have been keeping fish, maintaining water bodies, and reading articles about aquaculture for close to 60 years. Anyone who tells you that an ecological system can be maintained without water changes does not care about quality. Yes, to prove scientific points there have been aquarium systems in which water has not been changed for years. Some interior decorators and aquarium dealers also try to convince customers that water changes are not necessary. Well, Steve Jobs went for long periods without bathing. But when he was still a young employee, his supervisor had to put him on another work shift, away from colleagues who could not put up with his smell. In the same way, fish and plants can survive without water changes, but they certainly do not look nor smell good, and healthy birds would not like to visit such water features.

“All living things produce waste. Dissolved wastes inhibit growth and affect health, both of plants and fish. While it is possible for natural biological processes to break down these dissolved wastes, a far more effective way of removing them is to simply change the water.

“Basic maintenance is easy. Cut off any dead vegetation. Scoop out any visible rubbish. Drain out a third to half of the water, and refill it with water straight from the tap. That’s all, and it should not take more than 15 minutes, done perhaps once or twice a month. At least in Singapore it is usually safe to use water straight from the tap. I don’t find that chlorine levels here are harmful to fish if you don’t change more than half of the water at a time, and don’t do a water change before 11 am in the mornings.

“Why is the time important? Cold water holds more chlorine. Water that has been in the pipes overnight can poison your ecosystem. It’s best to let other households do their washing and ablutions and get the overnight water out of the pipes before you use any for your ecosystem. Also, by late morning, the water would have warmed up, and would hold less chlorine.

To filter or not? : “Half the water features in my house are filtered. The other half are not. If you are serious about keeping fish, and want to look at them, filtration certainly helps maintain clarity. If you are primarily interested in plants and an ecosystem to which birds come, filtration is not really necessary provided that you keep the water fresh through partial changes every fortnight. Some plants such as lotus, and the full-sized water lilies, actually do not like their water agitated. They do all right without filtration, though you must not forget the water changes. If you want to filter the water in lily and lotus ponds, make sure that the pump does not create a current. Do this by positioning the water outlet so that the force is dissipated against a rock or back wall.

“As to the question of what kind of filter, there are many on the market, which I have used with varying degrees of success. I now stick to the reputable and long-established brands. Though more expensive, they are durable. Most of mine have been running for 10 years or more, and one has been going since 1978. Among the established brands, equipment failure does not necessitate total replacement. In most cases, components are available, and only the parts that have failed need to be replaced.

“To ensure durability, set up your system so that the pump is located downstream, after the filter. Dirty water should first enter the filter, and be cleaned there, before it gets into the pump. You can either buy an off-the-shelf system for about S$500, or make one yourself for the cost of an extra container (about S$100) and a pump (less than S$200). Make sure that you buy an outdoor pump, one with a long, waterproof cable that can reach your electrical outlet. Most outdoor pump cables come in lengths of 6 meters to 10 meters.

“Setting up a home-made filter is easy. Connect your pond and the spare container tightly with a length of pipe or hose, making sure that the spare container is at a slightly lower level than the main pond. Put filtration material in the spare container. You can either buy koi pond filter mats at about S$50 for enough to fill a 150 litre container, or, you can use the cheaper alternative of cooker hood matting, available from any electrical appliance shop. An even cheaper alternative, but one that takes a while to become established, is to plant the filter container heavily. Plant roots do an excellent job of filtration.

“Use bricks with holes, or a plastic basket, to create a clear space at the far end of the container, away from the inlet, where the pump can work without sucking in the filtration material. Put the pump into this space.

“Put some kind of screen on the overflow of the main pond. You don’t want your fish, plants, water insects and tadpoles to end up in the filter. Fill both containers with water and start the pump.

Warning: Observe the initial water flow carefully when first starting your set-up. The flow rate through a hose or pipe between two containers at almost the same level is usually not fast. If your pump is too powerful, it will quickly cause an overflow, and your containers will run dry. When this happens, the pump motor will overheat and be ruined. For the types of ponds being discussed in this article, I recommend very low-powered pumps, with flow rates of between 300 to 600 litres per hour. If this is still too much, you will have to drill additional holes and add pipes to connect the two containers until there is adequate flow between them. Make it a habit of checking the pipes, inlets and outlets for blockages, and clear these as soon as you notice the water flow slowing down.

Substrate: “Some kind of substrate is necessary to get an ecological system going. In water features, what NOT to use is gardening compost. Any potting soil that contains compost will rot into a smelly mess under water.

“Two materials work well, and one works, but not so well, as substrates for water features. Builders’ sand and burnt earth can give very decorative results and somewhat acceptable water clarity, even without filtration. Ordinary red clay, straight out of the hole that you excavate to put your container into, is great if all you are interested in is growing lotus and water lilies. But with clay, the water may probably never be clear.

“Builders’ sand is available from any building materials supplier or contractor. Test a handful by tossing it into a glass of vinegar to make sure that it is not excessively alkaline. If there is too much alkalinity, usually caused by too high a calcium-carbonate content (limestone) the vinegar will bubble vigourously. If there is only slight or neglible bubbling, the sand is safe to use.

“Of course you can use aquarium sand, but this is much more expensive, and not noticeably better.

Burnt Earth: “For readers not from our part of the world, I will digress to discuss Burnt Earth. Tropical soils are usually heavy, too much so to support sustained market gardening. Farmers here solved this problem by burning – not just the slash-and-burn form of agriculture – but a much more sustained effort. Piles of soil alternating with firewood are built up with enough space in between to allow combustion. These are set alight and will burn for hours, even days. The result is a porous material, akin to a crude ceramic, that is neither sticky nor cloying. Used as a planting material above ground, it is free-draining, yet holds water well without suffocating roots. Used under water, it allows sufficient circulation for roots to breathe, and also does not cause clouding. Burnt Earth is sold in most gardening supplies centres in Singapore and Malaysia. In countries where public bonfires are allowed, you can burn earth yourself. What type of earth you decide to burn is not important, as long as it is not limestone-based. By the time the burning is through, the material will be totally sterile.

“To get good plant growth, it will be necessary to provide about 8 to 10 cm of substrate at the bottom of the water feature.

“Rinse either sand or burnt earth several times to get rid of excessive silt and ash before putting either of them into your pond. Even after rinsing, do not expect the water to be clear at the start. With filtration, the pond may clear in a fortnight. Without, clarity may come after one or two months when the plants are established.

“As I said earlier, if you simply use the clay you dug out of the hole, the water may never clear. But that’s OK if all you are interested in are water lilies or lotus. These plants seem to be all right with a heavy, cloying planting medium, and do fine in mud or clay.

Plants: “A whole host of water plants are available from nursery supply centres. You can choose what you like. I have my favourites, and I am sure you will have your own.

“I will just mention some of my personal experiences. Singapore has very strict laws against mosquito breeding. Fines are heavy. To ensure that they do not accidentally transgress, nurserymen err on the side of caution. Most water plants they sell are over-dosed with insecticides. Adding them directly to your ecosystem will ensure that no animal life will survive.

“I always rinse purchased plants thoroughly, and wash off all the soil on their roots before setting them up in my ponds. This is traumatic for the plants. Most recover after three to six months. Some do not. That is a risk you have to take if you want to set up an aquatic ecosystem in your garden.

“Heat is also a problem to some plants. Though most of the full-sized water lilies that I have grown seem unaffected by heat, dwarf water lilies from Africa do not do well in locations with direct sun. Which is a pity, because full-sized water lilies are really too big for the average Singapore garden. When well-grown, each individual leaf is about 40 cm across, and the plant spreads for about two meters.

Above left: Full-sized water lily outgrowing a container; above-rgiht: A dwarf water lily.

“They grow fast and produce lots of dead leaves, which must be removed frequently. Otherwise they rot and pollute the water. The dwarf varieties, with 10 cm leaves and spreads of less than a meter are more manageable.

“I have to point out that lotus and water lilies do not like to share the same body of water. If you have both in the same pond, before long, you will not have lotus.

Lotus look lovely, but lose out when competing with Water Lilies.

Echinodorus, the Mexican Swordplant, is quite attractive and easy to grow. So is Thallia, which provides nectar that brings sunbirds. Of the various Thallia species, I find that dealbata brings the most birds. Both the Mexican Sword and Thallia can be messy if not pruned regularly. However, I must point out that though this was not the case when I was a kid, global warming is making itself felt, and both Mexican Sword and Thallia are more affected by heat than was the case in years past. Formerly, I could grow these two plants anywhere. Now, they will only do well in my ponds located in cooler positions. Thallia in particular seems to prefer flowing water, and does better in ponds that are filtered.

“I grow lots of Bacopa, which has attractive, small blue flowers.

“You will also find that ordinary garden grass grows readily in water. As will Alternanthera, Cannas, Cuphea, Heliconia and many other plants that people normally think of as terrestial. These plants grown in shallow water flowered more freely than those grown in soil.

Pandanus of various species, dwarf, fragrant and giant, do extremely well in water. They are also excellent for providing filtration, and the fragrant varieties can be added to your cooking. But though I grow lots of Pandanus in my fish pond filters. But because Pandanus is prickly and does not harbour insects, it does not attract birds, so I do not use it in places where I want to watch our feathered friends.

“Though I have lots of fully aquatic plants in my aquaria at home, I have stopped transplanting aquatic plants into the water features meant for attracting birds. Elodea, Anacharis, Cabomba and Ceratophyllum, common aquarium stem plants, will grow fast outdoors and cause an unsightly tangle. Vallisneria, Pygmy Chain Sword, Cryptocoryne and various other rooted plants quickly lose out to water lilies. In the end, I just gave up on all of them.

Livestock and Pests: “In Singapore, again I warn against the feared Inspector from the National Environment Agency. This creature, which patrols its territory regularly, is attracted unerringly to any body of water, where it searches with unbridled diligence for mosquito larvae. If any are found, the property owner or tenant will quickly understand why Singapore has the reputation for being the Finest Country in the World. The first-time fine for mosquito breeding can be S$500.

Fish: “Fortunately, the presence of fish in water bodies dissuades the feared Inspector from its duties. And the fish should be clearly visible. Which fish will survive in an unfiltered, unaerated body of water out in the open where temperatures fluctuate wildly between day and night? I will tell you right away that goldfish, swordtails, mollies, barbs, tetras, and most fancy tropical fish, with one exception, will not.

“But fish used for mosquito control, or those native to padi fields will do just fine. After all, the shallow water and fluctuating temperatures are the conditions they live with in nature.

“Guppies of course come immediately to mind. However, fancy guppies are not hardy. Even if you visit the aquarium shops to buy trash guppies, or feeder fish meant to be consumed by large carnivores, you are not guaranteed of getting the wild guppies that will survive in drains. You have to choose the stock carefully.

“For feeding larger and more expensive fish, aquarium shops generally stock rejected guppies – those with birth defects that render them unsuitable for sale. Genetically, these are weak. But the shops sometimes supplement their stock with guppies caught from drains. These can easily be identified because they are generally smaller, and even though they show some slight yellow or blue, they have a grey background colour, and usually have transparent fins. Pick out about a dozen of these, and within a few months you will have a hundred or more in a 200 litre vat.

“Don’t try to catch your own guppies in Singapore, even though they teem in some of the public drains and canals here. Fishing in any form is illegal in such places. Each bag of between 20 to 50 live feeder fish costs only $2 from aquarium shops, who obtain them from drains within their own fish farms or from Malaysia.

For stocking stagnant ponds, Gambusia, the original mosquito control fish, are a far better choice and much hardier than guppies. Gambusia were introduced to many places by health authorities. They look like slightly larger, very slender wild guppies, and are all grey, without any trace of colour whatsoever. As far as I know, no aquarium shops specifically sell Gambusia, but there are quite often a few mixed up in bags of wild guppies. Look out for them by examining the bags on offer. I released these along with the wild guppies in one of my ponds, and found that the Gambusia multiplied, out-competed and exterminated all the guppies.

“The one fancy livebearer that I learned can survive in stagnant water is the Platy. I really had no intention of having them in a stagnant pond, but my fancy platies were quite prolific, and I had no space to raise all the babies. So, as our Webmaster had asked me for an article on attracting kingfishers, I put my rejected stock of Platies out as bait. Even though they were rejects, and nowhere as beautiful as those I retained, the Platies were colourful, and stood out clearly in the murky water of a 1,000 litre vat that measures 3 meters by 1.5 meters and is 60 cm deep. The kingfishers came, and got some of them. But the survivors were smart enough to take cover under lily pads. Nowadays, the kingfishers do come around to the buffet regularly, but they get only the inexperienced juvenile fishes, or old and weak specimens that are no longer alert. And enough have survived to keep this colony going for the past three years.

“Platies are not very long-lived. Even under the best conditions, most look old past a year, and will expire within two years.

“If running a kingfisher snack bar is not your intention, two local fishes, the Three-Spot Gourami (Trichogaster trichopterus) and the Croaking Gourami (Trichopsis vittatus) are excellent choices for garden water bodies. Both are Anabatoids, air-breathers from the padi fields, and are used to low-oxygen environments. To find out what these fish look like, go to the ecology asia website here:

“Three-Spot Gouramis are popular aquarium fish, and are now bred in several fancy colours such as blue, gold or mottled, with and without spots. But unlike guppies, the fancy breeds of gouramis are just as hardy as their wild brethren, which do not seem to be sold in aquarium shops any more. Gouramis are by nature wary, and when adult at about 10 to 12 cm, are too big a mouthful for the average kingfisher. So a colony of Gouramis will survive in your pond, hopefully until old age catches up with them, which happens in less than three years. But then, in containers of more than 200 litres, my Gouramis breed. Enough of the offspring survive to sustain the population at about a dozen fishes at any one time.

“There are two varieties of Croaking Gourami, so called because they do make audible vocal noises. These are soft creaks rather than croaks. The larger is Trichopsis vittatus and the smaller one, also known as the Sparkling Gourami, is Trichopsis pumila (or pumilus, depending on how much of a stickler you are on Latin grammar). I keep and breed both varieties. The latter is rather attractive, and sometimes sold in aquarium shops. It is not native to Singapore, but is imported from Thailand and Vietnam. But it is so minute (about 3 cm long when fully adult) and hard to see if not in a glass aquarium, that you might have a difficult time convincing the dreaded Inspector from the National Environmental Agency that there actually are fish in your water bodies and he might insist on spending hours dredging through your ponds.

“For the purpose of this discussion, I will just focus on Vittatus. This fish is about 6 cm long and looks like a faded Siamese Fighting Fish with a pointed nose. According to old records, before guppies and Gambusia were introduced to South East Asia from the New World for mosquito control, Trichopsis vittatus was the most common freshwater fish here. It was said to have been found in almost every body of water that could support fish life.

“My experience bears this out. I started with a few in a spare, unfiltered, unaerated glass fish tank 1.2 meters long holding 200 litres of water. Very soon, I had several dozen. I had acquired a fibreglass vat that was quite wide, but only 20 cm deep, and planted lotus and water lilies in this. Most fish that I tried to raise here did not do well. There were great fluctuations in daily temperature due to the shallowness of the water. During hot spells, like the one we are having now, evaporation would cause the water level to drop by 4 or 5 cm. Since there was also about 10 cm of mud at the bottom, the total depth of water for swimming could sometimes drop to less than 5 cm. But I put in my excess Vittatus, and they flourished. They also bred. And despite the shallowness of the water, they are not easy to see, and very adept at avoiding kingfishers. However, they are not so hard to see as to be invisible to the dreaded Inspector from the NEA.

“There is only one problem with Trichopsis vittatus. Since it is not very attractive, not many fish shops in Singapore sell it. But it is common in Johor. You can buy or scoop up a few there and bring them back without too much hassle. The Customs and Immigration staff here will generally permit small quantities of live fish to be brought into Singapore if they are not meant for trade purposes. Check on their website, or the website of the Agri Food and Veterinary Authority, for the latest regulations.

“A last point – feeding fish. If you are satisfied to have very few fish, a 200 litre container can generate sufficient larvae and other natural food to sustain them. But to have a reasonable number in good condition, you will need to feed them. A population of any of the fish discussed above can be sustained on one pinch of good-quality dry food per day, though two feedings, in the morning and in the evening, would be better. Please use well-advertised fish food from reputable manufacturers as some of the brands are suspect, with very little nutritional quality.

Other aquatic livestock: “Garden water bodies attract dragonflies – lots of them. They make a very welcome addition, and since their larvae are aquatic, they will breed in your ponds. Dragonfly larvae are carnivores, but in my experience, they have never been efficient enough to exterminate fish populations.

“My wife loves to see frogs sitting on lily pads. I have had mixed experiences in this regard. Some of the common local frogs do show up naturally in our gardens, and do sit on our lily pads. But they have fallen victim to kingfishers, herons, and one of our cats. I have tried to replenish the stock with mixed frogs bought from aquarium shops that have them for feeding to carnivorous fish. Two of the types of frog commonly sold are the Field Frog (Fejervarya limnocharis) and the Crab-Eating Frog (Fejervarya cancrivora). These closely-related species are bred on farms in large quantities for human and aquarium fish food. I like them because they are hardy, can become quite tame (if you hand feed them on mealworms) and are not unattractive. I also buy bags of mixed frogs and tadpoles, probably collected from the wild. But honestly, I cannot identify many of the species. Some do mature and take up residence. You can also check with Ecology Asia for frog identification.

“One species which I find rather amusing, though not everyone will agree, is the Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra). This shy animal is very seldom seen, hiding for most of the day. But on rainy nights, it makes itself heard with what, in my opinion, is a rather charming, booming call.

Pests: “However, a call that everybody I know of thinks is irritating is that of the Common Asiatic Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus). It shows up in every un-fenced body of water and its jarring, dry and persistent croak gets on the nerves. If you have pond within a walled garden, as I did in my former house, the problem can be contained by taking the toads for long, one-way car rides. If your garden is open, like my present one is, there are only two things to do – plug your ears – or hope that a Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator) comes by, as a few do on a regular basis. When the lizards show up, my toad problems end for a few weeks. But when there are no more toads left to eat, the lizards move on, and the toads return.

“Before turning to the subject of birds, I have to mention American Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeiana). Yes, our local conservationists hate them. Brought here by farmers for food, they have turned the tables on humans and are happily eating up our local wildlife. They are now widespread, and show up uninvited in all kinds of places.

Above left: One of the automatic toad control devices in my home; above right: mynah and Spotted Dove in dispute over drinking facilities.

“Don’t be surprised if a refugee from a French restaurant or a Frog Porridge Stall hops in. A water body of the size of those that we are discussing in this article can at most sustain a solitary specimen of American Bullfrog. They are huge, growing up to 500 grams, though most weigh in around 200. Since I don’t really want frogs’ legs on my menu, I have allowed those that showed up to stay. I do find them amusing, and when fed, they do become somewhat tame. But in a shallow pond of 200 litres they can be disruptive, uprooting plants and disturbing fish. Eventually, I had to move most of them to my much larger ponds. Still, as long as they had plant beds to retreat into, they could hold their own with the big fish and turtles.

Birds: Now, to what you have been waiting for in this article. What birds will come to small, garden water bodies?

“The Javan Mynah (Acridotheres javanicus) will probably be your earliest visitor. Mynahs love to bathe, and are delighted to find sources of fresh water.

“Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) will come in flocks of up to a dozen. This surprised me because this species is usually encountered only in pairs. But when they want to make use of a facility, or need a drink, they will put up with crowding. I said ‘put up’ and not ‘tolerate’. Within the flock couples pair up distinctly. And when push comes to shove, doves show that they are anything but peaceful.

“I also get frequent visits from Glossy Starlings (Aplonis panayensis) and Yellow Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus goiaver).

Above left: starlings having a shower; above right: bulbul taking a drink.

“One of my personal favourites, which I have unfortunately not been able to photograph at a water body, is the Brown-Throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis). If you plant Thallia dealbata, a pair will take up residence and visit your water body regularly. They simply love the nectar in this plant. Also, because Thallia carry their flowers on bare stalks, the sunbirds will be easy to observe.

“Coming to birds that are specifically linked to water, top of the list of course is the White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). One of them is resident in my garden, and comes to try his fishing talents every single day.

Above left: the resident Kingfisher; above right: Little Heron loves to drop by.

“And, though I live quite a distance from any lake or river, I am now no longer surprised to see Little Herons and Intermediate Egrets dropping in, especially at this time of the year, when migrant egrets are plentiful.

“But the residents that I am happiest to have established are the White Breasted Waterhens (Amauornis phoenicurus phoenicurus). In my old house, which was in Serangoon Gardens, as typical a surburban environment as you can get in Singapore, Waterhens were infrequent visitors.

“Where I live today, which is a bit more out-of-town, if you believe that such places exist in this country, Waterhens are permanent fixtures.

“As I said, there are no streams or lakes within a kilometer of where I stay. But there are some overgrown plots of vacant land, and some fairly deep drains. When I first moved in, before setting up any of the water bodies, the Waterhens would simply walk past my house each day.

“After the water bodies were established, Waterhens took up residence. I have seen several generations born and grow up right in my front yard. They feed on my water plants and forage for water snails and other invertebrates which are plentiful in my ponds. And they are clearly omnivorous, eating seeds, leftover softbill mix, fish food, dog food, cat food and most other things edible.

Above: Wet Waterhen.

“Yes, they are by nature solitary, and quite territorial. But I can recognise about three contingents who have worked out a sort of roster to visit me. The early shift is taken by an adult pair and their current brood of very small chicks. They help themselves to what they need, and then move on.

“Adult, but not fully-grown individuals then show up. These would probably be last year’s chicks. Finally, when they have had their fill, this year’s chicks, those booted out by their parents, though with some still sporting traces of baby plumage, come to see what they can find among the leftovers.

“Waterhens are crepuscular. So this roster is observed twice per day, at dawn and dusk.

“Others such as Dato Amar Singh and Andy Dinesh, who post on this website have shown that Waterhens exhibit threat behaviour. I will confirm that they can be downright aggressive, both to other species and to their own species.

“When the Waterhens show up, all other birds get out of the way. The dominant pair do not usually engage in dramatics. They are big enough that the other birds give them a wide berth.

“But the young adults make the grandest entrances. When one of them appears, rather than foraging or bathing right away, it will do a circuit of all the water bodies and, with wings puffed out so as to look larger, make a great show of driving every other bird away before it gets down to business.

Above left: spoiling for a fight. This Waterhen is not chicken; above right: The cast of the Waterhen Cartoon Show.

“And when they come with young, it’s a daily cartoon show, which you can watch if there are Waterhens in your neighbourhood and you provide some water for them to use.

“The biggest clowns in the Waterhen show are the young chicks. With feet far too big in proportion to their size, they are, as other commentators on this website have noted, vertically challenged. They are also capable of stepping on their own toes.

Above left: Waterhen chick; above right: taking the food right out of Mother’s mouth.

“While birds of the Rail family, to which the Waterhens belong, do not feed their young in the same manner that Passerines do, the female Waterhens do help their chicks to locate food. Some of the lazy ones insist that she pick up the food, which they will snatch right out of her beak.”

Lee Chiu San
February 2014

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YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

2 Responses

  1. Excellent article! I am a (tiny) apartment dweller so building a water garden is out of the question, but this made for very interesting reading. I would like to visit some homes with water gardens, if their owners are open to this possibility.

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