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Coots Rails and Moorhens: Rallidae

Black Rail (laterallus Jamaicensis): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: Black rails are small, dark birds with a slightly reddish brown upper back and spots or bars on the lower parts of their backs and bellies. Females are slightly paler in color. Black rails range from 4.7 to 6 inches in length (12 to 15 centimeters) and from 0.7 to 1.6 ounces (20.5 to 46 grams) in weight.

Geographic range: Black rails have a scattered distribution, with populations in California, the eastern United States, portions of Central America, and western South America.

Habitat: Black rails lives in marshes and moist grassland areas.

Diet: Black rails eat primarily small invertebrates such as insects and spiders. They will sometimes eat larger animals such as fish or tadpoles, as well as plant seeds.

Black rail populations in the United States have decreased because their habitats, marshes and grasslands, have been lost to development and farming. (Illustration by Wendy Baker. Reproduced by permission.)

Behavior and reproduction: Black rails are territorial during the breeding season. Some populations migrate while others remain in the same place throughout the year. Most black rails are monogamous, although in rare instances a male may breed with multiple females (polygamy). In the United States black rails breed in the summer. In other parts of its range breeding occurs during the rainy season. Black rails nest in low vegetation, where they build a bowl-shaped nest out of grass. The nest is covered with a woven canopy. Females lay anywhere from two to thirteen eggs at a time. Eggs hatch after seventeen to twenty days.

Black rails and people: No significant interactions between black rails and humans are known.

Conservation status: One black rail subspecies, found in the Peruvian Andes, is considered Endangered, while the others are considered Near Threatened. In the United States, black rail populations declined greatly during the twentieth century, due largely to habitat loss. ∎

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsCoots Rails and Moorhens: Rallidae - Physical Characteristics, Habitat, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Rails And People, Conservation Status - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE