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What is a Clapper Rail?

By S. Ashraf
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The clapper rail, Rallus longirostris, is a marsh bird and one of the largest of the rail species. Clapper rails range from 14-16 inches (36-41 cm) in length, have a wingspan of about 19-21 inches (48-53 cm) and weigh an average of 11.4 ounces (323 g). The clapper rail is gray-brown to olive-brown in color, with either a cream or reddish breast. Male and female clapper rails are similar in both size and color. In appearance, clapper rails are set apart by their resemblance to chickens as well as by having long toes that are not webbed and lengthy bills that curve slightly downward.

Geographically, the clapper rail is widely distributed. In North America, it ranges along the Atlantic, Gulf and California coasts. This bird is also found along the coasts of the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Although the population of the species is basically stable, the California clapper rail, Rallus longirostris obsoletus, has dwindled in numbers mainly because of habitat destruction, and it is on the United States' Endangered Species List. This species of clapper rail was heavily hunted during the California Gold Rush because it was thought to be a culinary delicacy, and its numbers have never fully recovered.

The clapper rail is mainly a saltwater bird, and its preferred habitat is coastal saltwater marshes and mangrove swamps. A few of the subspecies of this bird, such as the Yuma clapper rail, are freshwater birds. They can be found along rivers in freshwater marshes. It is difficult to see clapper rails because they are secretive birds that prefer to run and don’t fly very often. Most frequently, they can be seen when the tide is high as they dart among the protective vegetation of the marsh to feed.

Clapper rails feed while walking in shallow water or by scavenging and foraging on the ground. They prefer to eat crustaceans, such as crayfish or small crabs. These birds are opportunistic feeders, though, and they also will eat insects, seeds, bird eggs and small fish or mice if they come across them.

Breeding season runs from about late spring to early summer. Clapper rails are monogamous, and the pairs are solitary nesters. Nests are built mainly by the males from dry marsh vegetation and have a domed shape that allows the nest to float with the rising or falling tide. Females generally lay nine to 12 eggs, and both sexes incubate them. The eggs hatch in about 20 to 23 days.

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