At a Glance

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.
Chicken-like Marsh Birds, Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Near Threatened
Coasts and Shorelines, Freshwater Wetlands, Saltwater Wetlands
California, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas
Direct Flight, Flushes, Running

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

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


5-6" (13-15 cm). Sparrow-sized, short-billed. Slaty all over with chestnut nape, white spots on back, red eyes. Note: small downy young of some other rails are black and are often mistaken for Black Rails.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Gray, Red, White
Wing Shape
Broad, Rounded
Tail Shape

Songs and Calls

A piping ki-ki-doo, the last note lower in pitch.
Call Pattern
Falling, Flat
Call Type
Chirp/Chip, Rattle, Whistle


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.



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.


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.

Feeding Behavior

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


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 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.

Climate Vulnerability

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.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Black Rail. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Black Rail

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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