Photo: Robert Gundy/Audubon Photography Awards

King Rail

Rallus elegans

A chicken-sized marsh bird, the largest of our rails. Nesting in fresh-water marshes of the east, the King Rail has become an uncommon species as many wetlands have been drained. It remains locally common near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where it is not especially shy, often stalking about at the marsh edge in full view of observers. Closely related to the Clapper Rail, and may interbreed with it in zones where salt and fresh marshes meet.
Conservation status Has declined or disappeared in many areas because of loss of habitat. Also hurt by runoff of farm chemicals into wetlands. Numbers may be stable now at lowered population.
Family Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Habitat Fresh and brackish marshes, rice fields, swamps. Sometimes salt marshes in winter. Will use a variety of habitats with shallow fresh or brackish water and dense cover. Important plants include cattails, bulrushes, spartina, and others. May be in brushy swamps with many willows, or in flooded rice fields.
A chicken-sized marsh bird, the largest of our rails. Nesting in fresh-water marshes of the east, the King Rail has become an uncommon species as many wetlands have been drained. It remains locally common near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where it is not especially shy, often stalking about at the marsh edge in full view of observers. Closely related to the Clapper Rail, and may interbreed with it in zones where salt and fresh marshes meet.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

Mostly forages in shallow water, in or close to dense marsh cover. Large items (such as big crayfish or crabs) may be carried to solid ground and dismembered before being eaten.


Eggs

Usually 10-12, sometimes 6-14. Pale buff, lightly spotted with brown. Incubation is by both sexes, 21-23 days. Young: Downy young leave nest a few hours after hatching. Both parents feed young; after about 3 weeks, young start to pick up much of their own food. While young are small, adults may brood them at simple nest platforms near where they hatched. Young are able to make short flights at about 9-10 weeks. May have two broods per year in south.


Young

Downy young leave nest a few hours after hatching. Both parents feed young; after about 3 weeks, young start to pick up much of their own food. While young are small, adults may brood them at simple nest platforms near where they hatched. Young are able to make short flights at about 9-10 weeks. May have two broods per year in south.

Diet

Mostly insects and crustaceans. Diet includes many aquatic insects, especially beetles. Eats many crayfish and crabs, and sometimes many small fish. Also eats snails, clams, grasshoppers, frogs, spiders, and seeds of aquatic plants.


Nesting

In courtship, male walks about with tail raised, showing off white under tail coverts. Male may feed female. Nest site is in a clump of grass or sedges, usually about a foot above water or land. Nest (apparently built mostly by male) is a solid platform of grass, sedges, other marsh plants, with a canopy woven over the top and a ramp leading down from the entrance. Additional simpler nest platforms may be built nearby.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Withdraws from most of northern and inland part of range in winter. Apparently migrates at night.

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Migration

Withdraws from most of northern and inland part of range in winter. Apparently migrates at night.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A harsh, clattering kek-kek-kek-kek-kek, almost identical to that of Clapper Rail.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Chicken-like Marsh Birds Rails, Gallinules, Coots

King Rail

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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