Chesapeake Bay Field Office
Northeast Region

Black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis)

Catching a glimpse of a black rail is a prize for any bird watcher. Elusive and secretive, black rails are usually identified by their three-noted, nasal calls - "kee-kee-do" or "kic-kic-kerr” – heard primarily at night.

Black rail. Photo by George Kearns.
Black rail. Image by George Kearns

Those lucky enough to spot one would see a dark bird, roughly the size of a sparrow, with a rusty colored back of the neck. The smallest rail in North America, inhabits shallow salt and freshwater marshes along the eastern seaboard from Connecticut to Florida and along the Gulf Coast. They will flush when startled, but usually prefer to move through the marsh vegetation on foot. Their diet consists of seeds, insects, small mollusks, amphipods and other invertebrates.

Breeding lasts from mid-March to early May. The black rail, using shallower sites than other rails, nests in high portions of salt marshes and shallow freshwater marshes, wet meadows, Most breeding areas are vegetated by rushes, grasses, or sedges and are infrequently flooded (high marsh).

The eggs are ceamy white with fine brown spots. Both sexes assist in incubation and brood rearing. At hatching, the young are covered with black downare are fed  by both parents

Fall migration ranges from early September to early November, with most records mid-September to mid-October. Migrates at night and sometimes strikes TV towers or other objects. Winter range poorly known, but may winter in southern portion of breeding range and in Caribbean.

Adult survival appears to be high in stable habitats, despite predation by herons and other avian predators during extreme high tides—a primary source of mortality for populations in tidal marshes. Birds fleeing flooded areas are more susceptible to predation. Predators include great blue herons, great egrets, Northern harriers, short-eared owls and mammals such as domestic cats and foxes.

Loss and fragmentation of of suitable wetland habitat poses the greatest threat to black rails. It is estimated that half of the historical eastern coastal wetlands have been filled or drained. This loss of habitat has drastically reduced the amount of suitable land available to this species.  Alteration of the water regime can allow common reed (Phragmites australis) to invade and degrade black rail habitat. The effects of burning, practiced in many high tidal marshes, on black rails is currently unknown. Black rails re also more susceptible to grazing or agriculture practices than other rails as their habitat is at edge of marshes and is relatively dry.

The secretive nature of this species makes it difficult to accurately assess. But biologists are continuing to learn much about this elusive bird, its life history, and migration patterns. Although population trends are difficult to assess accurately, nearly all U.S. populations appear to have declined drastically in this century, and have only recently stabilized in the last 25 years with the enactment of laws protecting wetlands


Some migratory birds in the Chesapeake Bay area:

Bald Eagle

Black Rail

Canada Goose


Cerulean Warbler

Field Sparrow

Great Blue Heron

Red Knot


USFWS Office of Migratory Bird Management

graphic element

Shade-Grown Coffee
What's it all about?

Last updated: January 28, 2011