At a Glance

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.
Chicken-like Marsh Birds, Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Low Concern
Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Freshwater Wetlands
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Southeast, Texas, Western Canada
Flushes, Running

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

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.


6-8" (15-20 cm). Small and short-billed; dark above, buffy below. Suggests juvenile Sora but smaller, blacker above, with narrow white bars on back. In flight, shows white patch on inner part of wing (unlike other rails).
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, White, Yellow
Wing Shape
Broad, Rounded
Tail Shape

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.
Call Pattern
Call Type
Chirp/Chip, Odd, Rattle, Whistle


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.



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.


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.

Feeding Behavior

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


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.


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.

Climate Vulnerability

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.

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 Yellow Rail. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Yellow 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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