Yellow Rail

Coturnicops noveboracensis

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • RALLIDAE
  • Coots, Rails
  • Gruiformes
  • Polluela amarilla, Gallineta amarilla, Polluela amarillenta
  • Râle jaune
Introduction
The small Yellow Rail is known for its elusive ways; much of its life history remains unknown. In wet meadows and grassy fresh and salt water marshes, this relative of coots and cranes stays close to the ground and prefers to run, rather than fly from threats. The Yellow Rails' migration, wintering, and breeding habitats have been shrinking. With an estimated global population of only 17,500 individuals, conservation efforts have focused on saving the bird's habitat.
Appearance Description

Few observers ever see a Yellow Rail on the ground, even when the male's "song," a tic-tic tictictic, announces its close presence. Most often, this rail is seen in flight, identifiable by its warm yellow chin and chest, yellow bill, yellow and black stripes on the upper parts, and flashes of white in the upper and under wings. A rare good look reveals a dark cap over yellowish eyebrows and a dark brown mask. Yellow Rails are only slightly larger than sparrows, growing to about 7.25 inches.  They weigh 1.8 ounces, with a wingspan of 11 inches. The sexes are similar.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The Yellow Rail breeds from the Canadian Maritimes to the wetlands of the northern Great Plains, including parts of the upper Midwest. Around Saint John's Bay, Canada, this rail was common as recently as 2004. There is a small isolated breeding colony in Oregon's Klamath Basin. The bird's wintering grounds extend from the coast of North Carolina through Florida, and into the Gulf Coast of southern Texas.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
During the breeding season, the Yellow Rail inhabits damp meadows and marshes with abundant grasses and sedges. This rail prefers a mixture of new growth and dry, dead grasses that form mats and overhanging cover. Standing water over a foot deep, and areas with small trees are avoided. Wintering birds often use mature salt marshes, well above the waterline. They can also be found in rice fields.
Feeding
The core of the Yellow Rail's diet consists of small snails, insects, spiders, and some small crustaceans, picked from the ground or vegetation as the birds walk through rank grass. They also consume seeds in winter. More information is needed about this rail's feeding habits.
Reproduction
Much of the Yellow Rail's breeding biology has not yet been observed. This marsh bird arrives on its breeding grounds from late April through mid-May. Males establish large territories by continuous singing, and parading with raised wings to flash their white wing patches. Monogamous pairs may preen each other as part of their courtship.
 


Both sexes construct a woven nest of grasses and sedges, which the female finishes and conceals with a canopy of vegetation. She lays 5 to 10 eggs—cream colored and heavily marked with brown— and incubates them for about 23 days. Within a day of hatching, Yellow Rail chicks can walk, but require feeding and brooding for up to three weeks. The female makes a low "ror" call when disturbed at the nest, and calls chicks with a soft whinny. Juveniles can fly at 35 days, but little is known about their natural history.

Migration
The migratory habits of Yellow Rails are not fully understood. Collisions with transmission towers suggest that this rail migrates at night and sometimes in small flocks. At the end of April, birds reach their southernmost breeding grounds, from which they depart in September. This rail does not appear to follow defined routes.
  • 17,500
  • Between 10,000 and 17,500
  • Unknown population trend; species of highest conservation concern
Population Status Trends
Recent population trends are difficult to determine, due to the Yellow Rail's secretive behavior and scattered populations.
Conservation Issues
The loss of grassy wetlands to commercial development, the degradation of coastal marshes, and the difficulty of monitoring Yellow Rail populations have prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to regard this tiny waterbird as a Species of Conservation Concern. The USFWS has also listed the Yellow Rail as a Focal Species—a new designation initiated in 2005 to reflect an urgent conservation need, and a realistic chance of restoration success, with the potential to positively affect other species. Canada also regards this rail as a Species at Risk. In the summer of 2002, surveyors located over 200 male Yellow Rails around the southeastern end of Canada's St. James Bay. The protection of such rich wetlands is important to the survival of the Yellow Rail. Conservation efforts have focused on habitat management and preservation; additional efforts, along with basic research on the Yellow Rail's natural history, are needed.
What You Can Do
With patience and respect for their fragile habitat, look and listen for the Yellow Rail on its breeding grounds in the damp meadows of Canada and the northern U.S.
 
Support efforts to limit development in critical wetlands and to restrict access during the breeding period.
 
Support conservation easements, controlled burns and water level management; all can be effective tools for managing land to benefit Yellow Rails.
 
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Bookhout, T. A. 1995. Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 139 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Robert, M., et al. "Yellow Rail Distribution and Numbers in Southern James Bay, Quebec, Canada." Waterbirds 27:3 Sep 2004, pp. 282-288.
 
Robert, M., P. Laporte, and R. Benoit. "Summer Habitat of Yellow Rails, Coturnicops noveboracensis, along the St. Lawrence River, Quebec." Canadian Field-Naturalist 114:4 9 Oct-Dec 2000, pp. 628-635.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Bookhout, T. A. 1995. Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 139 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Robert, M., et al. "Yellow Rail Distribution and Numbers in Southern James Bay, Quebec, Canada." Waterbirds 27:3 Sep 2004) pp. 282-288.
 
Robert, M., P. Laporte, and R. Benoit. "Summer Habitat of Yellow Rails, Coturnicops noveboracensis, along the St. Lawrence River, Quebec." Canadian Field-Naturalist 114:4 9 Oct-Dec 2000, pp. 628-635.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.