At a Glance
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.
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
Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers
Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Plains, Southeast, Texas
Direct Flight, Flushes, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Withdraws from most of northern and inland part of range in winter. Apparently migrates at night.
15-19" (38-48 cm). More richly colored than Clapper Rail. Flanks more sharply barred black and white; back feathers have warm buff edges; much reddish on wings. Habitat is a good clue (King in fresh water, Clapper in salt water), but they meet and sometimes interbreed in brackish marshes. Virginia Rail much smaller, with gray cheeks.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Brown, Gray, Red, White, Yellow
Songs and Calls
A harsh, clattering kek-kek-kek-kek-kek, almost identical to that of Clapper Rail.
Chirp/Chip, Rattle, Trill, Yodel
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the King Rail. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the King 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.