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Black Rail Identification

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The Four Keys to ID

  • Size & Shape

    A tiny but sturdy chickenlike bird, with a short, blunt bill, short wings, and strong legs and feet.

    Relative Size

    Larger than a Least Sandpiper, smaller than a Semipalmated Plover.

    Relative Sizebetween sparrow and robinbetween sparrow and robin

    • Both Sexes
      • Length: 3.9-5.9 in (10-15 cm)
      • Weight: 1.0-1.2 oz (29-35 g)
      • Wingspan: 8.7-11.0 in (22-28 cm)

Regional Differences

Ornithologists recognize five subspecies of Black Rail. Eastern North America, the Caribbean, and Central America are home to the jamaicensis subspecies, which is partly migratory. It has a grayish crown and chestnut nape. In California and adjacent Baja California and Arizona, the nonmigratory subspecies coturniculus nests. Compared to jamaicensis, it has a shorter, finer bill, a rich brownish crown, and chestnut upper back as well as nape. Outside of North America, the subspecies tuerosi inhabits marshes around Lake Junín, Peru. It is darker overall, with more prominent white barring than the more northerly subspecies. On the coast of Peru, the paler subspecies murivagans has pale rusty or even pinkish undertail coverts and very strong white barring above, almost appearing like white bands. The southernmost subspecies, salinasi, is the largest on average. It inhabits central Chile and adjacent Argentina. It is also strongly marked with white above and has an extensive rich rufous patch on the nape and upper back.