The Secret Lives of Black Rails, and the Scientists Who Seek Them

Deep in Louisiana marshes, the Black Rail is a master of stealth. Now a tactical team is shining a light on the species, with hopes to demystify its behavior and win it protections.

On a late-winter night in southern Louisiana, a small group of scientists and college students drags paint cans full of BBs and bolts through a marsh. With spotlights and fishing nets at the ready, they take high steps over tangles of grass, hoping the clattering will flush out their quarry—a red-eyed, sparrow-size bird that few people have ever seen.

Three hours into the march, as expectations fade and leg muscles start to quake, someone yells the two words the surveyors have been waiting to hear.

“Black Rail!”

Jonathon Lueck, a bearded graduate student in a raccoon-skin cap, drops the dragline of cans and races after the bird. It flies a few yards, then falls back to the safety of the grass, where it lives in an underworld of tunnels and hideouts. Lueck swings his net and misses. He tries cupping his hands over the wily rail, but it slips from his fingers. Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation, catches up and drops his net in the nick of time. 

“Wooo,” Johnson yells. He scoops up the rail and holds it gently for all to see its dappled, gunmetal-gray feathers. “The bird that doesn’t exist.”


or most ornithologists and birders, Black Rails are near-mythical creatures. They’re shy around people, tend to come out only at night, and rarely fly. They also live deep within remote wetlands in the Midwest, Southwest, and on every U.S. coast, making it tough for researchers to gain more than a basic grasp on the species. But that’s starting to change along the Gulf, where Johnson and Audubon Louisiana are collecting one of the continent’s richest pools of data on the elusive bird

The information comes at an especially critical time. Black Rails once ranged across salt and freshwater marshes along the Gulf and the Atlantic—but these landscapes have been disappearing under growing cities and farms. In Louisiana, sea level rise, erosion, and sinking tracts pose new challenges for the bird. About 10,000 acres of the state’s coastal marshes are eaten away each year, robbing the rail of necessary habitat.

“Black Rails are in desperate straits,” says Bryan Watts, an avian biologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “They’re being completely squeezed out.”

Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed listing the Eastern population of the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Atlantic seaboard alone has seen a 95 percent dip in numbers, Watts, who provided data for the proposal, says. Only about 1,000 breeding pairs are believed to live on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

The listing, which is under review until October, could come with special protections and federal resources to preserve habitat. But the bird’s breeding, nesting, and migration habits are largely a mystery, making effective stewardship difficult.

“Their status in Louisiana was completely unknown before we started,” Johnson says of the Audubon Louisiana-led rail survey, which began in 2017. Back then, only 13 Black Rails had been confirmed in the state. In just a few months of winter patrols, the team has more than quadrupled that number. They recently discovered a stronghold for the species in the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, along with smaller populations in the Chenier Plain, which stretches about 100 miles from Vermillion Parish to the border with Texas.

The crew logged its 70th record with the rail that Johnson caught during last month’s outing. A young female, it weighed 1.3 ounces—about as much as a AA battery. The encounter, from net to release, lasted just a few minutes. But in the effort to save Black Rails and Louisiana’s marshes, every one of those minutes is priceless.   


rained, practiced, and armed with eyelash glue, the Audubon Louisiana team is well-equipped for their mission. The Black Rails prove a worthy opponent: They’re experts in stealth, says Auriel Fournier, a marsh bird expert at Mississippi State University, who’s joined in on previous surveys. “They have camouflage; they don’t vocalize very frequently; they stay close to the ground; and they’re so incredibly small,” she says. “They survive by not being seen.”

In fact, the simplest way to find the species is to listen for its nocturnal purr. “You’re lucky if you hear one,” says Justin Lehman, Audubon Louisiana’s marsh bird technician. “Only a few thousand people in the world have actually seen it.”

As the study’s lead scientist, Lehman is in an enviable position, with 26 Black Rail sightings over the past two field seasons. But he’s had to pull a few tricks to make that happen. First off, he’s learned that noisy cans are the most effective way to rile rails up. So, every Friday and Saturday between November and February, he and his team incite a small riot in the wetlands. They bring out their draglines at night when the birds are active, and stick to winter months to avoid disturbing nests.

With all the clattering, the rails usually fly straight into the air, then drift out awkwardly a few yards to land back on the ground. That’s when the team hits them with spotlights, stunning them for a moment. “It gives us a second to try to catch up,” Lueck, the eager young volunteer, says. 

Once in hand, the rails are banded with tiny, numbered bracelets, weighed, and measured. Feather samples are drawn and send to labs in North Carolina and Oklahoma for analysis, both for DNA and hints of the birds’ breeding sites. In December, the team also began attaching mini radio transmitters (hence the eyelash glue) to help reveal migration movements and nesting locations. Weighing about the same as a paper clip, the device is designed to fall off the rails’ backs after a few weeks. The group will then try to recapture the bird to swap in a fresh tracker.

The surveys are labor-intensive, but they’ve already paid off. For instance, Audubon Louisiana scientists now know that unbroken stretches of gulf cordgrass yield the best Black Rail numbers. “When you get 50 percent of the grass, rail occupancy goes way up,” Lehman says. This marsh type, with its higher, drier soils, is only found in a narrow strip near the Gulf shore, making it vulnerable to climate change and various eroding factors. “As we lose land in Louisiana, it’s the first to go,” Lehman says.

That’s where the pending USFWS decision could help. A spot on the endangered species list wouldn’t directly reverse land loss, but it might ease some of the Black Rail’s other woes. The draft rules proposed by the agency suggest restricted grazing, haying, and agricultural mowing in Black Rail habitats. They also highlight prescribed marsh burns, a common practice on the Gulf Coast used by federal and state land managers today to kill invasive plants and reduce large brush fires. Recent research hints that carefully managed blazes may actually make marshes stronger by encouraging healthy new growth that’s more resistant to erosion. What the USFWS wants, however, is to avoid burns in the middle of Black Rail nesting season, or in areas with high-concentration populations.

Johnson of Audubon Louisiana says that grazing and fires are potentially beneficial to rails, depending on how they’re managed. Both practices, he thinks, can keep woody and invasive plants from crowding out the open, grassy habitat rails prefer.

Another looming issue is the liquid natural gas boom in southwest Louisiana. One export terminal recently opened in Cameron Parish, a hotbed for rail activity, and eight more large facilities are proposed nearby.

Johnson says the survey’s most fruitful spot—a privately owned marshland in Cameron, where more than half the Black Rails have been tagged—is slated to have a 400-acre gas terminal alongside it by 2024. The operation would bring noise, light, traffic, and pollution, he says, but that’s not the only problem: As seawater drags away stabalizing soils, the shoreline of the marsh has retreated by about 70 feet over the past 20 years, a faster pace than much of the rest of the state. 

“It’s the holy grail site for Black Rails,” Johnson says. “And it’s about to be inundated.”


n the end, the Audubon Louisiana study isn’t just about the survival of Black Rails. The team caught five of seven U.S. rail species in that January weekend, including Soras, Virginias, Yellows, and a hen-size Clapper. They’ve logged data on a total of 16 Soras, 44 Virginias, 55 Yellows, 15 Clappers, and 15 Black Rails, and have found that all five species thrive in the elevated cordgrass marshes. If Black Rails get bumped to protected status, their rail cousins will benefit by default, Lehman says.

As he plans his final surveys of the year, Lehman is grateful for the hundreds of field hours his scouts—mostly students from local colleges and high schools—have put in. Lueck, a wildlife management student at McNeese State University, who grew up hunting and frogging, is among the most dedicated: His weekends are now reserved for the forays on the coast. “Much of volunteer research is sitting around and watching,” he says. “But with this, you’re running down birds in the dark out in the marsh. It’s as fun as you can get.”

Fournier, who’s studied Black Rails for nearly a decade, hadn’t seen a live one until she went out with Lehman and his crew. “It sounds silly, but I stood there and cried,” she says. As the surveys continue, she expects them to produce new insights on how rails feed, migrate, and breed—all of which will be critical if the bird is granted threatened species status. “If we’re going to protect them, this information is really fundamental for any next steps,” Fournier says.

In the meantime, scientists will keep pulling graveyard shifts and coaxing out answers, one ghostly marsh bird at a time.

The reporting for this story was done in collaboration with | The Times-Picayune.