skip to content
A small black bird with red eyes walks in the marsh grasses.
Information icon Eastern black rail. Photo © Tom Johnson, used with permission, The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Eastern black rail

Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis

  • Taxon: Bird
  • Range: Spans five U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regions (2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), including rare migrant records: AL, AR, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY (has no historic records), LA, MA, MD, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, VA, VT, WI, and WV; plus multiple territories and countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
  • Status: Proposed for listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act

A small, secretive marsh bird, the eastern black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis) was first discovered in Jamaica in 1760 and formally classified in 1789. No new information was published on the species until 1838, when John James Audubon announced the black rail as a bird of the United States. Audubon’s account of the “least water rail” (least water-hen, black rail) was based on specimens taken alive from meadows near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1836. In addition to being known as the least water rail, other historic accounts refer to the bird as the little black rail, the little red-eyed crake, and the black crake.

An art plate of two small black birds on the edge of a marsh
Least Water-hen (black rail) print, John James Audubon. Used with permission. © 2018 National Audubon Society, Inc., 225 Varick Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10014, USA. All rights reserved.

One of four subspecies of black rail, the eastern black rail is broadly distributed, living in salt and freshwater marshes in portions of the United States, Central America, and South America. Partially migratory, the eastern subspecies winters in the southern part of its breeding range. The California black rail subspecies (Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus) is confined to central and southern California, western Arizona, and Mexico. The two other subspecies of black rail, Laterallus jamaicensis murivagans and Laterallus jamaicensis salinasi, occur in South America in the countries of Peru, Chile, and Argentina.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) was petitioned in April 2010 to list the eastern black rail as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In September 2011, the Service published a 90-day finding that the petitioned action may be warranted and initiated a review of the subspecies. A 12-month finding based on that review was delivered to the Federal Register proposing to list the eastern black rail as a threatened species.

The eastern black rail is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and is state-listed as either endangered or threatened in seven states within the subspecies’ range: Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. It was formerly listed as endangered in Connecticut but is no longer believed to exist there, resulting in its removal from the state’s list. Most of what is known of the eastern black rail has been assembled from more than 100 years of literature, museum specimens, and unpublished observations.

Appearance

Adult eastern black rails range from 10-15 centimeters in total length and have a wingspan of 22-28 cm. They weigh 35 grams on average and are larger than California black rails. Their plumage is also less brightly colored than California black rails.

A small black bird with red eyes held by a biologist
Eastern black rail banding – Texas, January 2017. Photo by Christy Hand, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Males and females are similar in size and adults are generally pale to blackish-gray, with a small blackish bill and bright red eyes. The underparts from chin to abdomen are uniformly colored but are lighter on the chin and throat. The nape and upper back are chestnut and the remaining back, upper tail feathers and remiges (wing flight feathers) are dark gray to blackish with small white spots, sometimes washed with chestnut-brown. The lower abdomen, under tail feathers and flanks are streaked with black and have narrow white and dark gray barring washed with chestnut. Overall, males are darker and have pale to medium gray throats, while females are lighter and have pale gray to white throats. The lower legs and toes are a brownish-gray or gray to blackish-brown.

A small black bird with red eyes held by a biologist
Eastern black rail banding – Texas, January 2017. Photo by Jarrett Woodrow, USFWS.

Eastern black rail chicks are covered in black down with an oily greenish sheen and have dark brownish-olive eyes upon hatching. Chicks are only distinguishable from chicks of other rail species by their smaller size and slightly different bill coloration. Eastern black rail chick’s bills are sepia in color and have a 2-5 millimeter-wide pinkish spot around the nostril. Juvenile eastern black rails are similar in appearance to adults, but have duller plumage and fewer and smaller white spots. The white streaking on the sides is also usually thinner and less apparent. The eyes of juveniles get lighter with age and change from the dark brownish-olive at hatching, to an olive-green at 4-6 weeks, to amber to hazel at 8 weeks – lastly changing to red (as in adults) by about 3 months of age. The pupils remain black.

Biologists taking measurements of a small black birds wings at night
Eastern black rail banding – Texas, January 2017. Photo by Christy Hand, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Habitat

Eastern black rail habitat can be tidally or non-tidally influenced, and range in salinity from salt to brackish to fresh. Tidal height and volume vary greatly between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and therefore contribute to differences in salt marsh cover plants in the bird’s habitat.

In the northeastern United States, the eastern black rail can typically be found in salt and brackish marshes with dense cover but can also be found in upland areas of these marshes. Further south along the Atlantic coast, eastern black rail habitat includes impounded and unimpounded salt and brackish marshes.

A tidal marsh with several meandering channels
Eastern black rail habitat – Texas, January 2018. Photo by Jarrett Woodrow, USFWS.

Along portions of the Gulf Coast, eastern black rails can be found in higher elevation wetland zones with some shrubby vegetation. Impounded and unimpounded intermediate marshes (marshes closer to high elevation areas) also provide habitat for the subspecies. Inland coastal prairies and associated wetlands may also provide habitat for the bird but are largely uninvestigated.

In the interior United States, eastern black rails use wet sedge meadows with dense cover, such as in Oklahoma. In Colorado, birds use shallow wetlands often dominated by cattails.

Detections of eastern black rails outside the United States are limited, but descriptions of occupied habitat are available for a few locations. In Panama, birds and a single nest were once detected in an open savanna that contained a number of small hills. Birds also have been found in wet savannas in Belize, some surrounded by pine trees. An eastern black rail was documented in similar habitat (flooded grassland) in Honduras.

A tidal marsh with tall, lush green grass
Eastern black rail habitat photo – Honduras, 2013; Photo by R. Gallardo and A. Vallely.

There is less information for eastern black rail habitat in the winter range, but wintering habitat is presumably similar to breeding habitat since some sites in the southern portion of the breeding range are occupied year round. Little is known about eastern black rails during migration, including migratory stopover habitat, but individuals seem to appear more frequently in wet prairies, wet meadows, or hay fields during migration than during the breeding and wintering seasons.

Diet

Not much is known about the diet of eastern black rails but they are probably opportunistic foragers. Their bill shape suggests generalized feeding methods such as gleaning or pecking at individual items, thus a reliance on sight for finding food. Examination of specimens collected indicates a diet of small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, as well as small seeds. Foraging most likely occurs on or near the edges of stands of emerging vegetation – both above and below the high water line.

Historical range

Within the northeastern United States, historical records for the eastern black rail during the breeding season exist from Virginia to Massachusetts with most of the observations in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. The subspecies also was historically present during the breeding season at inland and coastal locations throughout the southeastern United States. Texas, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina were considered historical strongholds for the subspecies in the Southeast.

Historical literature indicates a wide range of interior states supported eastern black rail in some capacity, ranging from breeding to rare migrant records. Those states include: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.

The eastern black rail has been reported throughout the Caribbean and Central America, and birds may migrate from the coastal United States to these areas in the winter. Historically, eastern black rails may have bred in Puerto Rico but the rail’s distribution is still poorly understood there and predation from the non-native mongoose may have contributed to the rail’s decline. The historical resident population of eastern black rails in Jamaica is thought to be very rare and possibly extinct due to mongoose predation. The bird is a rare resident in Belize, very rare in the Bahamas, and a rare migrant in Antigua and Bermuda.

While historically known in Costa Rica, its current status is unknown. There are reports as recent as 2017 of eastern black rails in Honduras but the extent of their presence is unknown. One record of an eastern black rail (and nest) exists from Panama in 1963 but there are no recent records. The bird has been reported as rare on the island of Hispaniola, but like many other places, there are no current records. Early records (mid-1800s and 1903) documented eastern black rails in Guatemala, but there are no other records from the country.

A breeding population of eastern black rails has been speculated to exist on Cuba but recent claims of year-round birds are undocumented.

Historically, there is one record of eastern black rail in Brazil.

Current range

A map of the United States showing black rail common along the coasts of the southeast
USFWS Map/Data for Eastern Black Rail SSA; Current Range of the Eastern Black Rail (2011 to present); May 2018.

Northeastern Coastal United States

Recent records from this region between 2010 and 2017 include reports of eastern black rails from both inland freshwater locations and coastal salt marsh; however, the total number of recent occurrences is low for this time period. Historical sites north of Ocean County, New Jersey appear to be vacated.

Southeastern Coastal United States

Between 2010 and 2017, no credible records are known for Tennessee, Alabama, or Mississippi, and only a small number from Louisiana and Georgia. Of the historical stronghold states, North Carolina presently shows a severe decline in the number of occupied sites while South Carolina shows a limited distribution. This leaves Texas and Florida as present strongholds for this region. Region-wide, recent observations show poor presence inland and an overall widespread reduction in utilized sites across coastal habitats.

A small black bird flies over a lush green marsh
Eastern black rail in flight – Texas, April 2016. Photo © Jesse Huth, used with permission, Huth Avian Services.

Interior United States

Presently, eastern black rails are reliably located within the Arkansas River Valley of Colorado, and in south central Kansas. In Oklahoma, the subspecies continues to have a patchy distribution.

Caribbean and Central America

There have been very few reports of eastern black rails in recent years from the Caribbean and Central America. This may be due to lack of survey effort, as well as loss of habitat and predation. Regardless, status of the subspecies in this region is unknown.

Brazil

Eastern black rails have been reported from northern Brazil as recently as 2013-2017. The sightings, while sporadic, have been of adult eastern black rails with no reports of nests, chicks, or juveniles.

Conservation Challenges

Numerous conservation challenges exist for the eastern black rail. Plant communities that the subspecies depends on have been altered by fire suppression, invasive species, sea-level rise, and human modifications. Changing temperatures also have affected the natural hydrology of wetlands and have contributed to mangrove encroachment into salt marsh habitat. Eastern black rails may abandon these habitats as mangroves become more established.

Habitat fragmentation and conversion by humans has resulted in the decline of approximately 50 percent of the wetland habitats in the United States alone, many of which likely supported eastern black rails historically. Alteration of natural hydrologic processes by humans has had both intentional and unintentional consequences to these habitats.

Certain land management activities such as the frequency, timing, and pattern of fire can have negative as well as positive impacts for the eastern black rail. Application of fire during critical time periods for the bird (e.g., mating, egg-laying and incubation, parental care, and when the adults are temporarily flightless [in a full molt]) could lead to mortality of eggs, chicks, juveniles, and adult birds. Conversely, fire suppression can lead to habitat changes that negatively affect the subspecies by allowing the encroachment of woody plants.

The effects of climate change vary across the range but the best available information supports projections of increased temperatures, decreased precipitation, increases in severe weather events (droughts, hurricanes, etc…), and sea-level rise – all stressors that are likely to have significant impacts on eastern black rail populations and their habitat.

While not constant threats, oil spills, chemical spills, and threats from other environmental contaminants could have significant impacts on the rail, even with a single event. Localized “hotspots” for certain contaminants can pose a risk to a population, as exemplified by concerns about mercury contamination of waterbirds in San Francisco Bay where the California black rail occurs. Pesticides used for mosquito control in marshes inhabited by eastern black rails could also potentially impact the bird’s food source.

The introduction of West Nile virus into the United States in 1999 has had major impacts upon the wild bird community as well as to humans. While there is no data regarding the effects of West Nile virus on eastern black rails, the virus is speculated as being the leading driver of recent local extinction events in the Sierra Foothills population of the California black rail.

Invasive species are to blame for impacts to many native species, including the eastern black rail. Fire ants and feral pigs are suspected to have impacted the subspecies in the continental United States. Mongoose, introduced to Jamaica and Puerto Rico, have been blamed for the decline of several ground-nesting birds and could likewise impact eastern black rail. Non-native green iguanas that have been introduced to Puerto Rico also may pose a threat. Predation of eastern black rails has also been documented by native predators, ranging from raptors to snakes to coyotes, raccoons, and some wading birds.

While human disturbance may be a conservation challenge, citizen science detections of rare species is an important resource, when collected appropriately. With more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year by birders around the world, eBird has become the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project. eBird is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and has contributed greatly to the body of scientific knowledge that we have for many avian species.

Recovery plan

A recovery plan for the eastern black rail, informed by the Species Status Assessment and implemented via a Recovery Implementation Strategy, will be developed. The foundation supporting the recovery plan is the SSA. It includes an analysis of the species’ historic and current conditions, and also includes further analyses such as future projections of population trends under varying threat conditions, and potential management regimes. The SSA’s format is structured around the conservation biology principles of the 3Rs: resiliency, representation and redundancy.

Partnerships, research and projects

How you can help

  • The eastern black rail benefits from programs to preserve and enhance wetlands; such programs should be encouraged for their conservation.
  • Encourage additional survey work for the subspecies and undertake efforts to protect habitats where it is found.
  • Support groups that are providing a forum for collaboration between researchers and stakeholders, and share information about the subspecies, identify information needs, and support conservation actions.

Subject matter expert

  • Whitney Wiest, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, South Carolina Ecological Services Field Office; (843)727-4707 ext. 228; whitney_wiest@fws.gov

Designated Critical Habitat

The Service is not proposing critical habitat for the eastern black rail. Instead, the Service has deemed designation of critical habitat “not prudent”. Designating critical habitat requires identification of specific tracts of land that contain features essential to the conservation of a species. Identifying specific areas known to harbor the eastern black rail could subject the subspecies to an increased degree of threat from human disturbance. Several well documented cases of trespass exist where individuals have pursued this rare and secretive marsh bird.

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

Contact Us:

Looking for a media contact? Reach out to a regional spokesperson.

Share this page

Tweet this page on Twitter or follow @USFWSsoutheast

Share this page on Facebook or follow USFWSsoutheast.

LinkedIn

Share this page on LinkedIn