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Black Rail

BLACK RAIL

Photo Credit: Peter La Tourrette © California Academy of Sciences

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Laterallus jamaicensis (Gmelin)

OTHER NAMES: Black Crake (Bond 1980), Least Water-Hen (AOU 1998), Little Black Rail (Terres 1980).

DESCRIPTION: North America’s smallest (13-15 cm [5-6 in.]) rail with a body length, wingspan, and weight equivalent to that of a sparrow (Terres 1980). Pale to dark gray above, with variable amounts of chestnut brown on back, rump, and tail. Small white flecks also present on wings, back, and tail. A rusty patch is present on back of neck. Gray on belly and flanks barred with white. Eyes red, bill relatively short and black, and legs grayish brown. Males tend to be darker than females. Juveniles similar to adults in plumage, but tend to be duller and have less white on back, wings, and flanks. During breeding season the most common vocalization is a three-note kic-kic-kerr or kickee-doo thought to be given by the male. Rasping scold calls, growls, churts, coos, and bark-like vocalizations also emitted. Vocalizations usually given during twilight hours (Eddleman et al. 1994). Five subspecies recognized; two are found in North America: the larger-billed, nominate eastern black rail (L. j. jamaicensis) and the California black rail (L. j. coturniculus). Other races are found in South America (Eddleman et al. 1994).

DISTRIBUTION: In North America, breeds locally in California, Arizona, Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio; along East Coast from New York to southern Florida; and along Gulf Coast from western Florida to Texas. Breeding may occur in Missouri, Indiana, and Alabama. May or may not breed in parts of the West Indies, and Central and South America (Bond 1980, Eddleman et al. 1994, Imhof 1976). Winters locally in regions of southern California, Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida, and within the breeding distribution of Cuba and Central and South America (Eddleman et al. 1994).

HABITAT: Drier areas of salt, brackish, and freshwater marshes, and partially flooded fields and meadows. Prefers damp soil, often near edges of marshes where thin-stemmed emergent vegetation such as rushes, cordgrasses, sedges, and pickleweed are present (Eddleman et al. 1994).

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Very secretive and rarely ventures out from cover of dense marsh vegetation (Eddleman et al. 1994). In North America, migrants arrive on breeding grounds from mid-March to early May and return to wintering grounds early September to late November. Nests usually built less than 0.50 meter (1.6 feet) over damp ground or shallow water and are often concealed in vegetation clumps. In Alabama, egg-laying may occur from April to August. Around eight (range four to 13) whitish eggs, spotted with brown, are laid. Both parents share incubation duties for 17-20 days and therefore a monogamous mating system is suspected. Unsuccessful nests may be replaced and second broods may be produced. Newly hatched chicks covered with black down can leave the nest within a day; however, require parental brooding for a few days. Length of fledgling period unknown. Forage on ground and consume amphipods, spiders, insects, snails, and seeds. Can run quickly, and if happen to flush, flight is short and legs dangle downward in typical rail fashion. (Eddleman et al. 1994)

BASIS FOR STATUS CLASSIFICATION: In Alabama, inhabits primarily coastal marshes and as with many other areas within distribution, dredging, draining, filling, pollution, and development have reduced or degraded this habitat type. In addition, the invasion of the exotic common reed, the regular burning of marshes, grazing, and collisions with human-made structures (e.g., radio towers) have played a role in the population decline (Eddleman et al. 1994, Davidson et al. 1998). Considered a species of extremely high priority by Partners In Flight (PIF) because it occurs at the lowest relative abundance, has a very limited winter and breeding distribution, and threats to its breeding and nonbreeding grounds exist (PIF 2002). Although population trend data are lacking, considerable habitat loss has surely caused significant population declines (Eddleman et al. 1994).

Author: Thomas M. Haggerty


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