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What is a Yellow Rail?

By A. Delgado
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The yellow rail, or Coturnicops noveboracensis, is a small bird that behaves more like a small mammal. Yellow rails nest and search for food on the ground near water under the cover of vegetation. They rarely take to the air. The National Audubon Society estimated in 2010 that the bird's worldwide population in the wild was just 17,500. These yellowish-brown birds, which feed mainly on snails, are steadily losing their natural habitat.

Male and female yellow rails have an average weight of 1.8 ounces (51 grams) and reach an average length of 7.25 inches (around 18 cm). Their wingspans measure up to 11 inches (around 28 cm). The yellow rail is the second smallest species of rail in North America.

The yellow rail was named for its plumage, which forms a yellowish-brown pattern of stripes on most of the body. Their faces are dark brown with an olive or brown beak. The males’ beaks turn a yellowish hue during mating season. Yellow rails have white feathers on the underside of their rounded wings and on parts of their upper wings.

This elusive species of waterbird is found in eastern Canada and much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Their winter habitat reaches from coastal North Carolina to Florida and as far west as southern Texas. One isolated population lives in Klamath Basin, Oregon.

Yellow rails live in marshes, wetlands and damp meadows. They primarily stick to areas with dead matter and newly grown grasses that provide cover. They seek shelter in saltwater marshes and hay fields during winter. The breeding season begins in late April and lasts through mid-May. Males call to females and mark their territories by vocalizing with metallic clicking noises and showing off their wings.

Males and females build grassy nests in areas with overhanging vegetation to keep their eggs hidden. Females lay between five and 10 eggs at a time. The cream and brown eggs hatch after an incubation period of around 23 days. Young yellow rails leave the nest when they’re about 2 days old and learn to fly after 35 days.

Yellow rails mainly feed during the day in shallow pools of water. Their diet consists of snails, small crustaceans, spiders and insects. If the birds are startled when feeding, they freeze in place, hide in the water or fly off.

Wildlife divisions in several states throughout the yellow rail’s range have listed the species as threatened or endangered as a result of habitat loss. This loss is most significant in the North Carolina and Florida wetland areas that the birds use in winter. Conservation programs have been established in many states to help prevent further loss.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Yellow Rail?

The Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) is a small, secretive marsh bird that is part of the rail family. It is known for its yellowish-brown plumage, which provides excellent camouflage in its wetland habitat. Despite its elusive nature, the Yellow Rail plays a significant role in the ecosystem by consuming insects and seeds, thus contributing to the control of pest populations and the dispersal of plant species.

Where can you find Yellow Rails?

Yellow Rails are primarily found in North America, with their breeding range extending from the northeastern United States across Canada to Alaska. They prefer wet meadows and marshes with dense vegetation. During migration and winter, they can be found along the Gulf Coast and in the southeastern United States, where suitable habitat exists.

What does the Yellow Rail eat?

Yellow Rails have a varied diet that includes insects, snails, and seeds. Their feeding habits help maintain the ecological balance within their wetland habitats. By foraging on the ground and in shallow water, they contribute to the control of invertebrate populations and aid in seed dispersal, which is vital for the health of their ecosystems.

How do Yellow Rails communicate?

Yellow Rails are known for their distinctive vocalizations, especially during the breeding season. They produce a series of soft, tick-like sounds that have been likened to tapping two stones together. These calls are often used to establish territory and attract mates. Their elusive behavior makes observing these vocalizations a challenge for birdwatchers and researchers alike.

Are Yellow Rails endangered?

Yellow Rails are considered a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss and degradation. Their reliance on specific wetland habitats makes them vulnerable to changes in land use and climate. Conservation efforts are focused on preserving and restoring these critical areas to ensure the survival of the species. Monitoring populations and protecting key breeding and wintering grounds are essential for their conservation.

What is the breeding behavior of Yellow Rails?

Yellow Rails breed in the spring and early summer. They build their nests on the ground, hidden among dense marsh vegetation to protect them from predators. Females typically lay between 4 to 10 eggs, which they incubate for about 18 days. Both parents are involved in rearing the young, which leave the nest shortly after hatching and are capable of feeding themselves.

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