Photo: Rick & Nora Bowers/Vireo

Yellow Rail

Coturnicops noveboracensis

One of the most secretive birds in North America, almost never seen under normal conditions, although its metallic clicking calls may echo across the northern prairie marshes on summer nights. Rarely flies in the daytime except under extreme pressure. Somewhat erratic in occurrence on the breeding grounds: may be common at a given locale in wet years, scarce or absent in dry years.
Conservation status Undoubtedly has declined in this century, especially at southern end of breeding range, because of loss of habitat. Localized race in central Mexico is probably endangered if not extinct.
Family Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Habitat Grassy marshes, meadows. In summer, favors large wet meadows or shallow marshes dominated by sedges and grasses. Typically in fresh or brackish marsh with water no more than a foot deep. In winter mostly in coastal salt marsh, especially drier areas with dense stands of spartina; also rice fields, damp meadows near coast.
One of the most secretive birds in North America, almost never seen under normal conditions, although its metallic clicking calls may echo across the northern prairie marshes on summer nights. Rarely flies in the daytime except under extreme pressure. Somewhat erratic in occurrence on the breeding grounds: may be common at a given locale in wet years, scarce or absent in dry years.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, breeding
  • adult, nonbreeding
  • adult, breeding
Feeding Behavior

Foraging of wild birds essentially unknown. Yellow Rails in captivity feed only by day, picking food from ground, plants, or water.


Eggs

Usually 8-10. Buffy white, with reddish brown spots around larger end. Incubation is apparently by female only, about 17-18 days. Male may remain near nest during incubation. Young: Apparently fed by female only. Remain in nest only about 2 days, then follow female about in marsh. When not foraging, female and brood go to second nest (not the one in which the eggs hatched). Young find much of their own food after 2 weeks, all of it after 3 weeks; probably able to fly at about 5 weeks.


Young

Apparently fed by female only. Remain in nest only about 2 days, then follow female about in marsh. When not foraging, female and brood go to second nest (not the one in which the eggs hatched). Young find much of their own food after 2 weeks, all of it after 3 weeks; probably able to fly at about 5 weeks.

Diet

Mostly insects, snails, seeds. Diet not well known, but small freshwater snails reported to be important at some seasons. Eats a wide variety of insects (especially aquatic ones), also spiders, small crustaceans, probably earthworms. Also eats many seeds, at least in fall and winter.


Nesting

Male defends territory by calling, mostly at night. In courtship, male and female may preen each other's feathers. Nest site is in shallow part of marsh, on damp soil or over water less than 6" deep. Nest is shallow cup of sedges and grasses, with concealing canopy of dead plants above it. May build more than one nest, with extra(s) being used for brooding the chicks after they leave their hatching nest. Male takes part in starting nests, but female completes the work.

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

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

Migration

Migrates at night. Very rarely detected in migration, but individuals sometimes found when they stop over in city parks or other spots with little cover. Migrates south mostly in September and October, north mostly in April and early May.

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Migration

Migrates at night. Very rarely detected in migration, but individuals sometimes found when they stop over in city parks or other spots with little cover. Migrates south mostly in September and October, north mostly in April and early May.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
2 or 3 clicks, sounding like pebbles being tapped together, repeated over and over in a long series. Usually heard at night.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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

Yellow 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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