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Clapper Rail


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The large Clapper Rail is abundant in saltwater marshes and mangrove swamps from the U.S. East Coast to Central America and the Caribbean. This secretive bird lives most of its life concealed in dense vegetation. In 2014, the species was split into three: Clapper Rail; Ridgway's Rail of California, Arizona, and Nevada; and Mangrove Rail of South America.

At a GlanceHelp

12.6–16.1 in
32–41 cm
9.2–14.1 oz
260–400 g
7.1–14.1 oz
200–400 g
Other Names
  • Râle gris, Râle d'Eau,Pintade,Rateau (French)
  • Rascón picudo,Gallinuela de aqua salada,Pollo de mangle (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Clapper Rails have special salt glands that enable them to drink sea water.
  • Eggs submerged in up to 18 inches of water during high tide are still capable of hatching.
  • After leaving the nest, young are continually brooded by parents until they are about a week old. The parents may use the original nest, construct a temporary brood nest, or use floating debris.
  • Chicks less than two weeks old are carried on the adults’ backs during periods of high water or when the birds move across open water.
  • When chicks are about a week old, the parents divide the brood and each look after half the offspring.
  • The oldest recorded Clapper Rail was a male, and at least 7 years, 6 months old when he was shot in New Jersey in 1977. He had been banded in the same state in 1971.



Clapper Rails live in saltmarshes with extensive vegetation, which they use as refuges, especially at high tide. These birds prefer low portions of coastal wetlands dominated by cordgrass (spartina), pickleweed, mangroves, and other vegetation.



Clapper Rails are opportunistic and omnivorous, eating whatever's available including crabs, crustaceans, fish, eggs, and plant matter. Fiddler crabs are a favorite item if they can be found. They eat vegetation and seeds more often in the winter than in the summer. Clapper Rails forage while hidden in vegetation, or along the edges between marshes and mudflats. They find prey by sight and possibly by smell, usually grabbing food items from the surface or making shallow probes into the ground. Many prey are swallowed whole, and pellets of indigestible material (such as clam shells) are later regurgitated. Clapper Rails sometimes wash debris from clams before eating.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–16 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Incubation Period
18–24 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Creamy white to buff, with irregular brown to lilac blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Covered with black down and a pied bill, leave nest within one day. Fed by parents.
Nest Description

Males do most of the nest building and may continue to add to the nest after the female has started incubating eggs. Nests are bulky platforms of marsh vegetation, and are tall to protect them from tidal flooding and camouflaged to keep them concealed. Nests may have domes to help keep them hidden, and ramps to enable entry and exit in habitats with high or fluctuating water levels. The outside of the nest is 7–14 inches in diameter, with an inside cup 5–6 inches across and 1.5–3 inches deep. Domes are 6-8.5 inches higher than the rim of the nest. The male may add material during periods of high water. Both sexes incubate the eggs—usually the female during the day and the male at night—and raise the young. Pairs may renest up to 5 times after the failure of previous nests.

Nest Placement


Nest site selection involves a compromise between sites at higher elevation (to avoid flooding) with less dense cover, and sites at lower elevation with denser cover and tall grasses, to remain hidden from predators. Nests are placed in clumps of vegetation or in shrubs, from just above ground level to about 4 feet off the ground. Sites with diverse vegetation are preferred.



Clapper Rails live most of their lives on the ground, concealed amid dense vegetation. They occasionally climb into tall vegetation to investigate a sound or call of another animal. They rarely fly; they instead walk in an often irregular path with neck outstretched, and tail erect, jerking up and down if agitated. Birds may run in response to a threat, holding tail and head straight out and body horizontal. These birds spend much of their time foraging for prey, which they capture by gleaning from the surface or from shallow probes with their bills into the substrate. Clapper Rails are territorial during nesting season, but may form loose colonies, though this is less because they are social, and more because habitat availability and high water levels concentrate individuals onto higher ground. Birds respond to alarm calls and behaviors of other species. They swim well, and will dive if threatened. Clapper Rails are monogamous during the breeding season. Pairs work together to raise young. Adults may use a “broken wing” display to lead predators away from nests. They may compete directly with gulls for nest sites.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Clapper Rails are abundant but secretive, so it's hard to estimate their population trends with long-term surveys. The North American Breeding Bird Survey suggests numbers declined between 1966 and 2015 (likely due in part to loss of coastal wetland habitat), but there's not enough data to be certain of the trend. Clapper Rails rate a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists it as a Species of Moderate Concern. Clapper Rail is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Clapper Rails are threatened by habitat development and degradation, and high tides associated with storms. Sand deposition from storms may destroy marsh grasses, and this can affect Clapper Rail populations. Land development that alters vegetation, water levels or salinity can cause local population declines. Toxic materials settle in coastal wetlands, and this might compromise Clapper Rails; the species has served as an indicator for estuary health. They are listed as game birds in all coastal eastern states from Rhode Island to Texas, except New York. It is unclear whether hunting pressure causes declines in populations.


Range Map Help

Clapper Rail Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Resident to short-distance migrant. Food availability may determine seasonal movements.



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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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