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Ridgway's Rail Life History


Habitat MarshesRidgway's Rails live in saltmarsh swamps with extensive vegetation, which they use as refuges, especially at high tide. These birds live in low portions of coastal saltmarshes dominated by cordgrass and pickleweed, or in mangroves. The Yuma form of Ridgway's Rail lives inland, in the Salton Sea and in freshwater marshes along tributaries of the Colorado River. Back to top


Food OmnivoreRidgway's Rails are opportunistic and omnivorous, and their food selection reflects what’s available in their environment at any given time of year. They eat crustaceans such as crabs, crayfish, and shrimp; fiddler crabs are a favorite item if they can be found. Other food includes insects, snails, fish, bird eggs, slugs, vegetation, and seeds—the last two items are consumed more in the winter. Ridgway's Rails typically forage by slowly walking through dense reeds and other vegetation, or along edges between marshes and mudflats. They find prey by sight, and possibly by smell, usually grabbing food items from the surface or with shallow probing into the mud. Many prey are swallowed whole, and pellets of indigestible material (such as clam shells) are later regurgitated.Back to top


Nest Placement

Nest GroundNest site selection involves a compromise between higher sites with less cover—to avoid flooding—and lower-lying sites with tall grasses and better concealment from predators. The birds (usually the males) build their nests in clumps of vegetation or in shrubs, from just above ground level to about 4 feet off the ground.

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 a bulky platforms of marsh vegetation and are tall and camouflaged to protect them from tidal flooding and 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. Nests are 7-12 inches in diameter, with an inside cup 4-8 inches across and 1-3 inches deep. Domes are 16-28 inches higher than the rim of the nest. Ramps can be 4-22 inches long, and up to 6 inches wide. The male may add material during periods of high water. Both sexes incubate the eggs—usually the female during the day, and male at night—and raise the young. Pairs may renest up to 5 times after the failure of previous nests. Adults may use a “broken wing” display to lead predators away from nests.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-14 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:15.0-18.1 in (38-46 cm)
Egg Width:11.0-12.6 in (28-32 cm)
Incubation Period:23-29 days
Egg Description:Creamy white to buff with brown to lilac blotches.
Condition at Hatching:Covered with black down and a pied bill, able to leave nest within one day.
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Behavior ProbingRidgway's Rails live most of their lives concealed in dense vegetation, though they occasionally climb into tall vegetation to investigate calls of other animals or unfamiliar sounds. They rarely fly, instead walking often in an irregular path with neck outstretched, and tail erect, or 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 by picking items from the ground, or by probing into the mud. Ridgway's Rail are territorial during nesting season but may form loose aggregations of nests as habitat quality and high water levels dictate. Birds respond to alarm calls of other species. They swim well, and may dive if threatened. Ridgway's Rail are monogamous during the breeding season, and pairs work together to raise young.Back to top


Conservation Red Watch ListAll U.S. populations of Ridgway's Rail are federally protected as Endangered due to habitat loss, pollutants, urbanization, and exotic predators. The species is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Ridgway's Rail rates an 18 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. Habitat loss due to development and degradation is a leading cause of population declines. Land development can alter important aspects of habitat such as vegetation, water levels, and salinity. The population in California's San Francisco Bay has been severely compromised as up to 90% of its original 285 square miles of marsh has been filled, destroyed, or diked, and much of the remainder is degraded. Because they are a coastal wetland species, nearly all populations live in habitats with contaminants. Invasive predators such as Norway rats, red foxes, dogs, and cats are also threatening this species. Other predators include raccoons, mink, coyotes, opossums, crows, and gulls. Small populations have caused inbreeding in some areas which may contribute to low fertility and poor breeding success.Back to top


Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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