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What is a Black Rail?

Kim Masters Evans
Kim Masters Evans

The black rail, or Laterallus jamaicensis, is a small dark bird that lives in marshy areas of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. It is an elusive bird that is rarely seen. Its population is declining because of loss of suitable wetland habitat.

Rails are part of the Rallidae family, which includes coots. While coots are known for being loud and showy, rails are quiet and shy. The black rail is secretive and spends a lot of time on the ground hiding under vegetation. It rarely flies. Thus, the bird is seldom seen out in the open.

Black rails are declining as their wetland habitats are destroyed.
Black rails are declining as their wetland habitats are destroyed.

The black rail is a small bird, only from 5 inches to 6 inches (about 13 cm to 15 cm) long when fully grown. It has a stocky body that is mostly dark gray or black. There are small white spots scattered across its lower back, wings, and belly. It has bright scarlet eyes. Another distinctive feature is a chestnut-colored patch on the back of its neck.

Males and females are similar in appearance. Males are slightly darker than females. Young black rails are covered with down and are not as dark as adults. The young also lack the white spots and chestnut-colored patches that adorn the adults. Black rails begin life with light-colored eyes that change to scarlet when they are a few months old.

Black rails prefer salt marshes, shallow freshwater marshes, and wet meadows. Their primary habitats are coastal areas near seawater. They eat seeds, insects, spiders, and tiny invertebrates and mollusks.

During the breeding season, black rails voice a three-note call that sounds like “kic-kic-kerr” or “kick-ee-doo.” These calls are mostly heard after dark. The birds build their nests on the ground out of grass-like vegetation. The eggs are white with small brown spots. Both the male and the female tend to the eggs and the newly hatched young.

Laterallus jamaicensis is found mostly along the eastern U.S. coast and the Gulf Coast. A subspecies — the California black rail, or Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus — inhabits marshy areas of California. The eastern U.S. population migrates southward in the winter.

Black rail populations are declining as a result of wetland habitat destruction. The black rail is listed as an endangered species in several U.S. states. The U.S. government lists it as a species of concern at the federal level. This means the species is believed to be imperiled, but insufficient information exists to justify listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

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    • Black rails are declining as their wetland habitats are destroyed.
      By: Željko Radojko
      Black rails are declining as their wetland habitats are destroyed.