King Rail

Rallus elegans

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • RALLIDAE
  • Coots, Rails
  • Gruiformes
  • Rascón Real
  • Râle élégant
Introduction

The slender figure and bold plumage of the King Rail inspired John James Audubon to call it the "elegant rail." Illinois farmers nicknamed the King Rail the stage driver, because its "chck-chck" call reminded them of a rider urging on horses. Clicks, claps, grunts, and chucks emanating from shallow, freshwater marshes are all that most birders hear of the King Rail. The largest rail in North America prefers not to be seen.

Appearance Description

King Rails measure about 15 inches long with a 20-inch wingspan, and weigh 13 ounces on average. With its heavy body, relatively small head and neck, long, hefty bill, sturdy legs, and large feet with un-webbed toes, this rail looks something like a chicken or a large shorebird. The bird's neck and belly are rusty brown and contrast with the black and white barring in the sides. The dark brown upper parts are boldly streaked with yellowish. A rusty brown stripe runs from the bill, over the crown and down the nape to frame the gray face.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

The King Rail's breeding range has shrunk dramatically in the last 60 years. Once found regularly from the upper midwest southward through eastern Texas, then eastward through the coastal plain, and up into New England, today, the King Rail is largely restricted to the coastal plain from Texas through the lower Mississippi River Valley and all of Florida. This bird also occurs close to the Atlantic coastline north to New Jersey.

Habitat

King Rails are best supported by extensive wetlands with shallow water and a mosaic of plant species, such as grasses, cattails, sedges, and millet. These marsh birds prefer fresh water, but will also use brackish and tidal wetlands. King Rails tend to breed in the center of marshes, but their chicks depend on drier areas for foraging.

Feeding

Most often, King Rails forage by walking through shallow water or over moist, thickly vegetated ground. Like other large rails, King Rails are omnivorous. In the summer, their diet depends heavily on aquatic animals and insects, including crayfish, crabs, small fish, frogs, grasshoppers, and beetles. During fall and winter, they consume more aquatic plant seeds, especially millet and rice. King Rails have also been known to eat small mammals and acorns.

Reproduction

In the southern United States, King Rails form apparently monogamous pairs as early in the spring as February. The male courts the female by strutting around her with his tail cocked to reveals its white underside. He occasionally pauses to call "kik, kik, kik!" Once formed, the pair defends territories from other rails. Constructed by both sexes, the grassy nest is hidden in dense grasses and sedges, and elevated above damp ground or shallow water The pair incubates 10 to 12 light yellowish eggs, marked with small brown spots; they defend eggs and chicks by rushing at intruders or pretending to be injured. After about three weeks, the black, downy chicks emerge, ready to walk but dependent on the adults for food for the next nine weeks. Both adults brood the chicks, which also huddle together for warmth. Young King Rails begin to fly in about nine weeks, and families appear to break up before migration. In the south, some pairs may produce another brood before fall.

Migration

Although some southern populations do not appear to migrate, northern King Rail populations migrate south in September. Spring migrants have been observed in early April. Two banded individuals were recaptured 350 and 1000 miles, respectively, from one banding station. King Rails killed by radio towers suggest a nocturnal, individual migration.

CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • Unknown
  • Unknown
Population Status Trends

In the last 60 years, King Rails have all but disappeared from areas where they were once locally common, including Missouri's river marshes, the southern shores of the Great Lakes, and Delaware's Smyrna River valley. Between 1994 and 2003, the Breeding Bird Survey indicated acute declines, with significant losses in former strongholds like Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Christmas Bird Count data confirm this trend.

Conservation Issues

The leading cause of the King Rail's decline is habitat loss. In states where the King Rail has been listed as "endangered" or "imperiled," the loss of freshwater wetlands between the 1780s and 1980s was severe. The following states and their percentage of lost wetlands are typical: Arkansas 72%, Kentucky 81%, Maryland 73%, Missouri 87%, Ohio 90%, and Pennsylvania 56%. As freshwater marshes shrink, predators like cats, raccoons, and foxes have easier access to rails and their nests. Agricultural runoff becomes concentrated in fewer wetlands, and may become toxic or alter the growth patterns of key plants.

The Missouri Department of Conservation's recommendations include prohibiting dam construction or wetland drainage in the King Rail's range, restricting such work during the breeding season, and initiating rejuvenation projects for wetlands. The control of invasive plant species and erosion, the return of natural water flow, and the seeding of native water plants are also important. Since 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered the King Rail a focal species and plans to release a draft of its management plan.

What You Can Do

Support the Federal Conservation Reserve Program, which benefits many wetland species.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Visit the Farm Service Agency or the Ducks Unlimited website for a brief history of the federal Conservation Reserve Program and its benefits.

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.

Poole, A. F., L. R. Bevier, C. A. Marantz and Brooke Meanley (2005). King Rail (Rallus elegans). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.

Conservation Status References

Dahl, T. E. 1990. Wetlands Loses in the United States 1780's to 1980's. U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D. C. 13pp.

"King Rail, Rallus elegans." Best Management Practices. Missouri Department of Conservation. Accessed 19 April 2007.

Poole, A. F., L. R. Bevier, C. A. Marantz and Brooke Meanley (2005).King Rail (Rallus elegans). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.

Terres, John K. "Rail, king, Rallus elegans," The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Wings Books (Random House, Inc.) 1996: 756.