Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis

Eastern Black rail
FWS Focus

Overview

Scientific Name

Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis
Common Name
Eastern Black rail
FWS Category
Birds
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics

Behavior

Eastern black rails are secretive birds and difficult to detect. In some locations, males will sing throughout the day and night, while in others (e.g., Colorado), they sing mostly at night. 

During the breeding and wintering seasons, eastern black rails fly very little. They will typically flush for only a short distance when pursued (Bent 1926) but mostly remain on the ground and run quickly through dense vegetation (Armistead 2001, Taylor and van Perlo 1998).

 

Armistead, G.L. 2001. Rails, gallinules, and coots. Pages 246-250 In C. Elphick, J.B. Dunning, Jr., and D.A. Sibley. The Sibley Guide to bird Life and Behavior. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, New York.

Bent, A.C. 1926. Life histories of North American marsh birds. Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum, Bulletin 135. Reprint edition, 1963. Dover Publications: New York, New York.

Cornell University. 2019. Black rail. Accessed at  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Rail on November 24, 2021.

Taylor, B. and B. van Perlo. 1998. Rails: a guide to the rails, crakes, gallinules and coots of the world. Yale University Press. New Haven, Connecticut.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics

Weight

Adults weigh 1.2 ounces (35 grams) on average (Eddleman et al. 1994).

Eddleman, W.R., R.E. Flores, and M. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.123 Accessed at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/historic/bna/blkrai/2.0/introduction on October 16, 2020.

Color & Pattern

An adult eastern black rail is gray-black in coloration, with white speckled upperparts, and has a grayish crown, a chestnut-colored nape of the neck, and a short tail (Cornell University 2019). Eye color is red, and the bill is black (Cornell University 2019). Legs can be dusty pink or wine-colored (Cornell University 2019). Chicks are covered with a black down that has an oily green sheen (Ridgway and Friedmann 1941; McMullen 1944). Juveniles look similar to adults, except their eyes are amber or hazel until 3 months of age (Cornell University 2019).

Cornell University. 2019. Black rail. Accessed at  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Rail on November 24, 2021.

Sound

Eastern black rails make multiple vocalizations, but the most commonly heard call is the kic-kic-kerr call (Kellogg 1962), also known as kickee-doo (Robbins et al. 1983, as cited in Davidson 1992a) and ki-ki-krr (Weske 1969). The call is primarily made by adult territorial males and is the main advertisement call (Davidson 1992a). Other calls are grr and churt, which serve as alarm and contact calls; grr (i.e., growling) also is used for territorial defense (Conway 2011). The purpose of the tch call is unknown but may be sounded while on the nest; see Conway 2011 for more call names. Male and female eastern black rails have been shown to respond to playback tapes with significantly different vocalizations (Legare et al. 1999). Males responded with kic-kic-kerr, growling, and churt, 48 percent, 46 percent, and 6 percent of the time, respectively, during 91 playback trails, while females responded with the same calls 5 percent, 29 percent, and 65 percent of the time, respectively, during 43 trials (Legare et al. 1999).

There are substantial regional differences in the daily vocalization patterns for eastern black rail (Butler et al. 2015). Birds in Maryland predominately call at nighttime from 1 to 2 hours after sunset to 1 to 2 hours before sunrise (Weske 1969, Reynard 1974). Birds in Florida are most vocal at sunset (Legare et al. 1999) but will call 1 to 2 hours before sunset to 1 to 2 hours after sunrise (Eddleman et al. 1994). In Texas, peak vocalization occurs after sunset until just before midnight following by a second, smaller peak time within 2 hours of sunrise (Butler et al. 2015). The daily vocalization patterns of eastern black rail continue to be an active area of research (Hand 2017).

Visit Cornell Lab's All About Birds site to listen to songs and calls of the eastern black rail.

 

Butler, C.J., J.B. Tibbits, and J. Wilson. 2015. Assessing black rail occupancy and vocalizations along the Texas Gulf Coast. University of Central Oklahoma and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Edmond, Oklahoma.

Conway, C.J. 2011. Standardized North American marsh bird monitoring protocol. Waterbirds 34(3): 319-346.

Davidson, L.M. 1992a. Black rail, Laterallus jamaicensis. In K.J. Schneider and D.M. Pence, Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the Northeast (pp. 119-134). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Newton Corner, Massachusetts.

Hand, C. 2017. Assessing the status of the black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources: Green Pond, South Carolina.

Kellogg, P.P. 1962. Vocalizations of the black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) and the yellow rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). The Auk 79: 698-701.

Legare, M.L., W.R. Eddleman, P.A. Buckley, and C. Kelly. 1999. The effectiveness of tape playback in estimating black rail density. The Journal of Wildlife Management 63: 116-125.

Reynard, G.B. 1974. Some vocalizations of the black, yellow, and Virginia rails. The Auk 91: 747-756.

Robbins, C.S., B. Brown, and H.S. Zim. 1983. A guide to field identification: Birds of North America. Golden Press: New York, New York. (as cited in Davidson 1992a)

Weske, J.S. 1969. An ecological study of the black rail in Dorchester County, Maryland. Cornell University: Ithaca, New York.

Size & Shape

The eastern black rail is a sparrow-sized, secretive marsh bird, and the smallest rail in North America (Eddleman et al. 1994). Adults have an average length of 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) and a wingspan of 8.7 to 11 inches (22 to 28 centimeters) (Eddleman et al. 1994).

Eddleman, W.R., R.E. Flores, and M. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.123 Accessed at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/historic/bna/blkrai/2.0/introduction on October 16, 2020.

Characteristic category

Overview

Characteristics

Overview

The federally threatened eastern black rail is a member of the family Rallidae (rails, coots, and gallinules). It is one of five recognized subspecies of black rail, two of which, L. j. jamaicensis and L. j. coturniculus, are found in North America, but do not co-occur (Taylor and van Perlo 1998; Clements et al. 2021). The other three, L. j. murivagansL. j. salinasi, and L.j. tuerosi, occur in South America (Taylor and van Perlo 1998; Clements et al. 2021).

Eastern black rails face the following threats (USFWS 2019c):

  1. Habitat fragmentation, alteration, and conversion
  2. Altered hydrology
  3. Land management
  4. Climate change
  5. Oil and chemical spills, and environmental contaminants
  6. Disease
  7. Altered food webs and predation
  8. Human disturbance

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) finalized a rule under the authority of section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act that provides necessary and advisable measures to provide for the conservation of the eastern black rail (85 FR 63764). Use of this authority allows for the Service to enact prohibitions tailored to the specific threats and conservation needs of this subspecies (83 FR 50625). The Service determined that designation of critical habitat for the eastern black rail is not prudent (85 FR 63764) because doing so would more widely announce the exact location of this species, which is extremely vulnerable to disturbance (83 FR 50627-50628).

Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, J. A. Gerbracht, D. Lepage, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2021. The eBird/Clements checklist of Birds of the World: v2021. Downloaded from https://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

Taylor, B. and B. van Perlo. 1998. Rails: a guide to the rails, crakes, gallinules and coots of the world. Yale University Press. New Haven, Connecticut.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2020. Eastern black rail Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis. Accessed at https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/birds/eastern-black-rail/ on November 24, 2021.

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics

Habitat

Black rails require dense vegetative cover that allows movement underneath the canopy (USFWS 2019). Because birds are found in a variety of salt, brackish, and freshwater marsh habitats that can be tidally or non-tidally influenced, plant structure structure
Something temporarily or permanently constructed, built, or placed; and constructed of natural or manufactured parts including, but not limited to, a building, shed, cabin, porch, bridge, walkway, stair steps, sign, landing, platform, dock, rack, fence, telecommunication device, antennae, fish…

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is considered more important than plant species composition in predicting habitat suitability (Flores and Eddleman 1995). Vegetation height is generally less than or equal to 1 meter in coastal habitats but taller in occupied cattail and bulrush marshes (Davidson 1992a, Legare and Eddleman 2001, Culver and Lemly 2013). However, when shrub densities become too high, the habitat becomes less suitable for eastern black rails (USFWS 2019). Soils are moist to saturated (occasionally dry) and interspersed with or adjacent to very shallow water (1-6 cm) (Legare and Eddleman 2001).

Eastern black rail habitat can be tidally or non-tidally influenced, and range in salinity from salt to brackish to fresh (USFWS 2020). Tidal height and volume vary greatly between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and therefore contribute to differences in salt marsh salt marsh
Salt marshes are found in tidal areas near the coast, where freshwater mixes with saltwater.

Learn more about salt marsh
cover plants in the bird’s habitat (USFWS 2020).

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 (USFWS 2020). Further south along the Atlantic coast, eastern black rail habitat includes impounded and unimpounded salt and brackish marshes (USFWS 2020).

Along portions of the Gulf Coast, eastern black rails can be found in higher elevation wetland zones with some shrubby vegetation (USFWS 2020). Impounded and unimpounded intermediate marshes (marshes closer to high elevation areas) also provide habitat for the subspecies (USFWS 2020). Inland coastal prairies and associated wetlands may also provide habitat for the bird but are largely uninvestigated (USFWS 2020).

In the interior United States, eastern black rails use wet sedge meadows with dense cover, such as in Oklahoma (USFWS 2020). In Colorado, eastern black rails use habitat with shallow wetlands dominated by cattails (Typha spp.), hardstem bulrush (Scirpus acutus var. acutus), and soft-stemmed bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani), with willow (Salix spp.) in the overstory (Griese et al. 1980). More recent studies found this subspecies to be detected exclusively in extensive cattail marshes with standing water (Wickersham 2016), and in dense emergent vegetation, with a mix of new and residual growth (Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2016). In research conducted in Colorado in 2018, black rail habitat was defined as “emergent marsh wetlands consisting of cattails and other wetland species such as hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus)” (Rossi and Runge 2018, unpubl. data).

Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 2016. Black rail – assessing habitat quality for priority wildlife species in Colorado wetlands. Wildlife Species Profiles. Denver: Colorado Parks and Wildlife. https://cpw.state.co.us/Documents/LandWater/WetlandsProgram/PrioritySpecies/Factsheet-and-Habitat-Scorecard_BlackRail.pdf Accessed on October 16, 2020.

Culver, D.R. and J.M. Lemley. 2013. Field guide to Colorado’s wetland plants. Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University: Fort Collins, Colorado.

Davidson, L.M. 1992a. Black rail, Laterallus jamaicensis. In K.J. Schneider and D.M. Pence, Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the Northeast (pp. 119-134). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Newton Corner, Massachusetts.

Flores, R.E. and W.R. Eddleman. 1995. California black rail use of habitat in southwestern Arizona. The Journal of Wildlife Management 59: 357-363.

Griese, H.J., R.A. Ryder, and C.E. Braun. 1980. Spatial and temporal distribution of rails in Colorado. Wilson Bulletin 92: 96-102.

Legare, M.L. and W.R. Eddleman. 2001. Home range size, nest-site selection and nesting success of black rails in Florida. Journal of Field Ornithology 72:170-177.

Rossi, L. and J. Runge. 2018 (Unpubl. Data) Eastern black rail occupancy in southeastern Colorado. Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Colorado Eastern Black Rail 2018 Survey Summary Report. August 9, 2018. 17 pp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2019. Species status assessment for the eastern black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis), Version 1.3. August 2019. Atlanta, Georgia. 175 pp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2020. Eastern black rail Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis. Accessed at https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/birds/eastern-black-rail/ on November 24, 2021.

Wickersham, L.E. (Ed.) 2016. The second Colorado breeding bird atlas. Denver: Colorado Bird Atlas Partnership and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 727 pp.

Wetland

Areas such as marshes or swamps that are covered often intermittently with shallow water or have soil saturated with moisture.

Coastal

The land near a shore.

Grassland

Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics

Food

To forage, eastern black rails walk among plants in the shallows (and sometimes in the deeper parts of marshes) and glean insects and other invertebrates (e.g., aquatic beetles, spiders, snails, small crustaceans) from the ground, water, or vegetation (Cornell University 2019; Kaufman 2020). Additional prey items include weevils, earwigs, woodlice, grasshoppers, and ants (Cornell University 2019). They will also eat seeds of aquatic plants, such as bulrush or cattail, particularly in winter (Cornell University 2019; Kaufman 2020).

Cornell University. 2019. Black rail. Accessed at  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Rail on November 24, 2021.

Kaufman, K. 2021. Black rail Laterallus jamaicensis. National Audubon Society. Accessed at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/black-rail on November 24, 2021.

 

Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics

Lifecycle

See the Reproduction section.

Lifespan

The lifespan is estimated to be 5 to 9 years (Cornell University 2019).

Cornell University. 2019. Black rail. Accessed at  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Rail on November 24, 2021.

Reproduction

Pairing may occur from April to August (Davidson 1992). Marsh bird calling activity peaks during the courtship and egg-laying period of spring and early summer (Conway 2009). Nesting in Colorado begins around May 1, which differs from some other states, like Texas, where nesting begins in March (83 FR 50625-50625).

Males and females may select the nest site together (Cornell University 2019). Nests are constructed of live and dead emergent, herbaceous plants, such as fine grasses, rushes, or sedges, often with a dense clump of vegetation that conceals the nest from above and that may be dome shaped, and a ramp of dead vegetation on one side (Harlow 1913, Todd 1977, Davidson 1992, Flores and Eddleman 1993, Legare and Eddleman 2001). Nests are typically well hidden and positioned over moist soil or shallow water (Harlow 1913; Davidson 1992; Flores and Eddleman 1993; Legare and Eddleman 2001). Average nest height above the substrate for eastern black rails in Florida was 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) (Legare and Eddleman 2001).

Clutch size is 7 eggs on average (Legare and Eddleman 2001), but can vary from 4 to 13 (Bent 1926, Taylor and van Perlo 1998). Eggs are buffy white to pinkish white and dotted with evenly distributed brown spots (Bent 1926).

Pairs have successfully re-nested after initial nesting failed (Legare and Eddleman 2001), and successfully double brooded (Hand 2017b, unpubl. data, as cited in USFWS 2019). Both sexes incubate the eggs (Legare and Eddleman 2001) for approximately 17 to 20 days (Cornell University 2019). Because both sexes incubate (Legare and Eddleman 2001) and assist in brood rearing, this species is thought to be monogamous.

During nesting, males have larger home ranges than females, with an average of 3.2 acres (1.3 hectares), and a range of 2.03 to 7.66 acres (0.82 to 3.1 hectares). Home range size for females during nesting averages 1.53 acres (0.62 hectares), with a range of 1.26 to 2.13 acres (0.51 to 0.86 hectares).

The precocial chicks leave the nest within a day after hatching (Davidson 1992) and are raised by the adults from May through September, although some chicks fledge as early as mid-June and as late as September (Hand 2017a). Juveniles obtain immature plumage by 3 months (Taylor and van Perlo 1998). At approximately 1 year of age, they obtain breeding plumage and become sexually mature (Eddleman et al. 1994).

Bent, A.C. 1926. Life histories of North American marsh birds. Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum, Bulletin 135. Reprint edition, 1963. Dover Publications: New York, New York.

Conway, C.J. 2009. Standardized North American marsh bird monitoring protocols. Version 2009-2. Wildlife Research Report #2009-02. U.S. Geological Survey. Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Tucson, Arizona. https://www.cals.arizona.edu/research/azfwru/NationalMarshBird/downloads/North%20American%20Marsh%20Bird%20Survey%20Protocol%20May%202009.pdf

Cornell University. 2019. Black rail. Accessed at  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Rail on November 24, 2021.

Davidson, L. M. 1992. Black Rail, Laterallus jamaicensis. Pages 119-134 In Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the Northeast. K. J. Schneider and D. M. Pence (Eds.) Newton Corner, Massachusetts: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eddleman, W.R., R.E. Flores, and M. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.123 Accessed at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/historic/bna/blkrai/2.0/introduction on October 16, 2020.

Flores, R.E. and W.R. Eddleman. 1993. Nesting biology of the California black rail in southwestern Arizona. Western Birds 24: 81-88.

Hand, C. 2017a. Assessing black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) nesting ecology in coastal South Carolina. Green Pond: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Hand, C. 2017b. Personal communication to W. Wiest. Wildlife Biologist, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Green Pond, South Carolina. (as cited in USFWS 2019)

Harlow, R.C. 1913. Nesting of the black rail (Creciscus jamaicensis) in New Jersey. Auk 30: 269.

Legare, M.L. and W.R. Eddleman. 2001. Home range size, nest-site selection and nesting success of black rails in Florida. Journal of Field Ornithology 72:170-177.

Taylor, B. and B. van Perlo. 1998. Rails: a guide to the rails, crakes, gallinules and coots of the world. Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut.

Todd, R.L. 1977. Black rail, little black rail, black crake, farallon rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). Pages 71-83 In G.C. Sanderson. (Ed.) Management of migratory shore and upland game birds in North America. International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, D.C.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2019. Species status assessment for the eastern black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis), Version 1.3. August 2019. Atlanta, Georgia. 175 pp.

Characteristic category

Geography

Characteristics

Range

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 salt marsh
Salt marshes are found in tidal areas near the coast, where freshwater mixes with saltwater.

Learn more about 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.

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.

 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2020. Eastern black rail Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis. Accessed at https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/birds/eastern-black-rail/ on November 24, 2021.

Characteristic category

Similar Species

Characteristics

Similar Species

Soras (Porzana carolina) look similar to eastern black rails, but soras are larger and have a larger yellow bill (Cornell University 2019). They are overall browner in coloration than eastern black rails (Cornell University 2019).

Cornell University. 2019. Black rail. Accessed at  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Rail on November 24, 2021.

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