At a Glance
A clattering cackle in the salt marsh is often our first clue to the presence of this big rail. The Clapper Rail is usually hidden in dense cover, but sometimes we see it stalking boldly along the muddy edge of the marsh, twitching its short tail as it walks, or swimming across a tidal creek. Historically it was abundant on the Atlantic Coast -- Audubon reported that it was possible to find a hundred nests in a day -- but now much more localized, as coastal marsh has been broken up by development.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Chicken-like Marsh Birds, Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Coasts and Shorelines, Saltwater Wetlands
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Mid Atlantic, New England, Southeast, Southwest, Texas
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Found all year in many parts of range. On Atlantic Coast, some withdrawal in winter from northern end of range, and an influx of northern birds is noted in parts of the southeast in winter.
14-15" (36-38 cm). Chicken-sized, with long narrow bill, barring on flanks. Underparts vary from buffy gray on Atlantic Coast to dull cinnamon on Gulf Coast. Juvenile is darker and duller. Almost never seen away from salt marshes.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Brown, Gray, Red, White
Songs and Calls
Harsh clattering kek-kek-kek-kek-kek.
Chatter, Chirp/Chip, Rattle
Salt marshes, rarely brackish; locally in mangroves in southeast. Along most of Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, strictly a bird of salt marsh, sometimes in adjacent brackish marsh. In Florida, also found in shallow mangrove swamps.
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Usually 7-11, sometimes 5-12 or more. Pale yellow to olive-buff, blotched with brown and gray. Incubation is by both sexes, 20-23 days. Young: Downy young may leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents probably feed young. Parents may brood young in a separate nest from the one in which the eggs hatched. Young can fly in about 9-10 weeks.
Downy young may leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents probably feed young. Parents may brood young in a separate nest from the one in which the eggs hatched. Young can fly in about 9-10 weeks.
Forages by walking in shallow water or on mud, especially on falling tide or at low tide, picking up items from the ground or vegetation, sometimes probing in mud or water.
Includes crustaceans, insects, fish. Diet varies with locality, and includes a wide variety of small prey. Crustaceans often favored, especially crabs, also crayfish and others. Also eats many aquatic insects, small fish, mollusks, worms, frogs. Eats seeds at times.
In courtship displays, male approaches female, points bill down, and swings head from side to side; also stands erect with neck stretched, bill open. Male may feed female. Nest site is in clump of grass or other vegetation in marsh, near the upper reaches of high tide, or on bank near water. Nest (built by both sexes, although male may do more) is well-built cup of grasses and sedges, lined with finer material, often with vegetation woven into a canopy over nest. Often a ramp of plant material leads from ground up to nest.
Still fairly common, but has seriously declined in parts of the east. Loss of habitat is main threat.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Clapper Rail. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Clapper 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.