Photo: Brian E. Small/Vireo

Black Rail

Laterallus jamaicensis

A tiny marsh bird, no bigger than a sparrow. Extremely secretive, it walks or runs through the marsh, and is rarely seen in flight. In very dense cover, it may get around by using the runways made by mice. The distinctive short song of the Black Rail is given mostly late at night, so the bird may go unnoticed in some areas. Fairly common at a few coastal points, its status inland in the east is rather mysterious.
Conservation status Has probably declined in most parts of North American range, drastically so in upper midwest. Loss of habitat is main threat. Where habitat is protected, numbers probably stable.
Family Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Habitat Tidal marshes and salicornia on coast; grassy marshes inland. Favors very shallow water, or damp soil with scattered puddles. In coastal marsh, upper limits of highest tides; inland, mostly wet meadows. Found in dense stands of spartina and other grasses, salicornia, rushes, sedges.
A tiny marsh bird, no bigger than a sparrow. Extremely secretive, it walks or runs through the marsh, and is rarely seen in flight. In very dense cover, it may get around by using the runways made by mice. The distinctive short song of the Black Rail is given mostly late at night, so the bird may go unnoticed in some areas. Fairly common at a few coastal points, its status inland in the east is rather mysterious.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • adult
Feeding Behavior

Foraging behavior poorly known. Although the birds often call late at night, they apparently feed mostly by day while walking through marsh.


Eggs

3-13, usually 6-8. White to pale buff, dotted with brown. Eastern race may tend to lay more eggs than western race. Incubation is by both sexes, 17-20 days. Young: Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching. Both parents probably care for young and feed them; details of development of young and age at first flight not well known.


Young

Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching. Both parents probably care for young and feed them; details of development of young and age at first flight not well known.

Diet

Insects, snails, seeds. Probably a generalized feeder on small items in its habitat. Feeds on wide variety of insects, including aquatic beetles. Also eats spiders, snails, small crustaceans. Eats many seeds of bulrush and other marsh plants, especially in winter.


Nesting

Nesting behavior not thoroughly studied. Nest site is usually a couple of inches above ground or shallow water in a clump of vegetation, often at a spot slightly higher than surrounding marsh. Nest is a well-constructed cup of marsh plant material, usually with a domed top woven over it. A ramp of dead vegetation leads from nest entrance down to ground. Adults may continue to add to nest, building it up to higher level, in areas where nest might be threatened by high tides.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Eastern Black Rails are somewhat migratory, withdrawing from northern areas in winter, but those in the west apparently are permanent residents.

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Migration

Eastern Black Rails are somewhat migratory, withdrawing from northern areas in winter, but those in the west apparently are permanent residents.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A piping ki-ki-doo, the last note lower in pitch.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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