Black Rail

Laterallus jamaicensis

(c) Ashok Khosla
  • RALLIDAE
  • Coots, Rails
  • Gruiformes
  • Gallinetia negra, Burrito negruzco, Pidencillo, Polluela negra, Gallinetita rayas blancas, Taquita de salinas, Gallinuelita prieta
  • Râle noir
Introduction
Small as a sparrow and quiet as a mouse, the elusive Black Rail fascinates researchers and birders. Breeding and wintering in the United States, this smallest relative of coots and cranes inhabits a variety of salt and fresh water marshes dominated by grasses and sedges. With the precipitous loss of wetlands in the United States, the Black Rail may be in trouble.
(c) Ashok Khosla
Appearance Description

The Black Rail is difficult to observe and rarely flushes; it prefers to slink and dart through dense grasses like a mouse. Well after dark, this rail is more likely to be heard than seen; its call is an emphatic, squeaky "kick-ee-doo!" The keen, patient observer may glimpse a tiny, dark waterbird with red eyes, a brown collar, white spots on the back, a short, black bill, and feet with long toes, which dangle in flight. The sexes are similar. On average, Black Rails grow 6 inches long, and weigh 1.1 ounces, with a wingspan of 9 inches.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The Black Rail breeds on the eastern seaboard from New Jersey to southern Florida and on the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. A small population of California Black Rails, a subspecies once considered lost, resides permanently in the shrinking estuaries of the San Francisco Bay. Black Rails also occur irregularly through northern Central America and into Chile.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat

Black Rails breed in salt or freshwater marshes, where the ground is moist but not entirely submerged. They also use grassy wet meadows. Migration and wintering habitats have not yet been observed, with the exception of the resident California Black Rail, which occupies similar territories year round.

Feeding
Limited observations suggest that Black Rails are generalists and consume a variety of insects, spiders, small crustaceans, snails, and seeds. Their bills seem adapted for picking food from the ground or shallow water. More research on the Black Rail's diet and foraging behavior is needed.
Reproduction

The reproductive biology of the Black Rail has been poorly recorded. Males and females vocalize on the breeding grounds, and may form pairs. The nest construction process is unknown. The nest is a woven cup of sedges and grasses with a canopy, often located in a clump of vegetation. A "ramp" connects the ground or water to the nest entrance. Both parents incubate 6 to 8 whitish eggs, finely spotted with browns. In 17 to 20 days the black, downy chicks hatch and appear "semi-precocial"—capable of walking within a day, but not of feeding themselves. The growth and development of Black Rail chicks is unknown.

Migration

In the eastern United States, the Black Rail migrates short distances from the northern parts of its breeding range. From March to May and again from September to November, migration occurs at night over a broad range, rather than along specific routes. The California population does not appear to migrate.

  • Unknown
  • 110,000
  • Highest continental concern
Population Status Trends
Recent breeding population trends are difficult to calculate, due to the Black Rail's secretive behavior and scattered populations. The Black Rail was formerly much more common in the interior of the United States, and its breeding ranges have shrunk severely along the coasts.
Conservation Issues
Without sufficient data to make a final decision about its status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have placed the Black Rail into a category which could allow it to be added to the Threatened and Endangered Species List. They have also recommended the Black Rail as a Focal Species, a new designation initiated in 2005, that reflects an urgent conservation need, a realistic chance of success, and the potential to positively affect other species. New York, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia list the Black Rail as a species of special concern; New Jersey, Connecticut, and California consider it threatened; and in Arizona this marsh bird is endangered. Habitat loss has been a primary factor in the Black Rail's decline. The San Francisco Bay area has lost 85% of its tidal marshes, prime habitat for the California Black Rail.
 

The Black Rail thrives in extensive, flat "high" marsh, areas which usually occur between marshes with standing water and the dry upland. Areas with periodic fires seem unattractive to this rail and may put it in conflict with management practices designed to encourage other species. Development for recreation, human settlement, pollution, and farming also discourage the Black Rail. Studies are underway to better understand this species' requirements, but its habitat continues to suffer.

What You Can Do
With patience and respect for its fragile habitat, look and listen for the Black Rail on its breeding grounds in early summer.
 
Black Rails need extensive tracts of marshland or wet meadows. Join the efforts of a local conservation group, like California's Marin Audubon Society, that coordinates volunteers and raises funds for the restoration and preservation of crucial wetlands.  
 

For additional actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.

More Information
Visit the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service website to learn more about the Division of Migratory Bird Management's Focal Species Strategy
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Eddleman, W. R., R. E. Flores, and M. L. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 123 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Evens, Jules. 1999/2000. "Mystery of the Marsh: the California Black Rail." Tideline: 19 (4) pp. 1-3.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Eddleman, W. R., R. E. Flores, and M. L. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 123 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Evens, Jules. 1999/2000. "Mystery of the Marsh: the California Black Rail." Tideline: 19 (4) pp. 1-3.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.