Living Bird Magazine
Black RailLaterallus jamaicensis
- ORDER: Gruiformes
- FAMILY: Rallidae
One of the most elusive birds in an elusive family, the tiny Black Rail is infamously difficult to see. Its dark colors, broken up by white speckles, help it blend with the deep shadows of dense marshes, where it preys on small invertebrates. It’s easier to hear, particularly on spring nights when males sing a repeated, amiable kick-ee-kerr. Black Rails are vulnerable to sea-level rise and other changes to its marsh habitat, and are listed on the Partners in Flight Red Watch List because of recent steep declines.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Black Rails are both scarce and difficult to find. In some places, bird clubs organize field trips that search specifically for them, usually in the breeding season or during particularly high tides when water levels force these small birds to the edges of marshes. Listening for the kick-ee-kerr song during spring nights is the best way to find this species. Because many historical breeding areas in saltmarsh habitats have lost their populations of Black Rails, it might be worth listening for them at night in shallow freshwater marshes.
- Polluela Negruzca (Spanish)
- Râle noir (French)
- Cool Facts
- The Black Rail uses areas with shallower water than other North American rails. This habitat preference yields less competition from other rail species, but it comes with risks: an abundance of terrestrial predators and the danger of inundation by heavy rains, high tides and sea-level rise.
- The chicks of most rail species are blackish and small, and when observers get a glimpse of just one chick, they sometimes mistake it for a Black Rail. Rail chicks have downy plumage and thus a fuzzy appearance, unlike adult Black Rails. Black Rail chicks are also black and fuzzy—but even tinier and rarely seen!
- The Galápagos Rail (Laterallus spilonotus) is extremely similar to the Black Rail. Some scientists consider Galapagos Rail a subspecies of Black Rail because of their close resemblance.
- For decades, ornithologists knew of a vocalization nicknamed the “kicker call” but because of the birds’ secretive nature, the scientists couldn’t figure out which species of rail was giving it. It turns out that variations of the call are given by Virginia, Clapper, and King Rails—as well as Black Rails. This “kicker” call is given by females and sometimes males, but its function is still unclear. Here’s an example of the call.
- The life span of the Black Rail is estimated to be 5–9 years. One bird in Arizona was known to be 2.5 years old.