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Yellow Rail Life History



Yellow Rails occur in shallow marshes with fairly short vegetation. For breeding, taller emergent vegetation like cattails does not attract Yellow Rails, but they sometimes nest nearby, where water is shallower and vegetation shorter. They often nest among sedges of the genus Carex. Sedge species include slender sedge, beaked sedge, analogue sedge, silvery sedge, marsh straw sedge, Mackenzie’s sedge, Hayden’s sedge, water sedge, chaffy sedge, blister sedge, woolly sedge, scaly sedge, and tussock sedge. They sometimes use marshes with threeway sedge (genus Dulichium). Yellow Rails also inhabit marshes with bulrushes of the genus Scirpus such as softstem bulrush, saltmarsh bulrush, and black-girdled woolgrass, with rushes of the genus Juncus such as soft rush, black needlerush, and Baltic rush, and with reedgrasses of the genus Calamagrostis, such as bluejoint reedgrass or slim-stem small reedgrass. Other plants like bald spikerush, saltmarsh spikerush, red fescue, prairie cordgrass, foxtail barley, black bent, and sweet grass are also associated with Yellow Rail nesting areas. Le Conte's and Nelson's Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and Wilson’s Snipe frequent similar habitats and are often present in Yellow Rail nesting territories, with Swamp Sparrow, Sora, Red-winged Blackbird, and Marsh Wren sometimes in deeper parts of the marsh system nearby. Because water levels change frequently in the prairies, nesting locations are not consistent in some areas from year to year. Migrating Yellow Rails turn up in wet meadows, shallow marshes, and agricultural fields with grassy cover or heavy stubble. Wintering Yellow Rails use shallow wetlands as they do in breeding areas, typically dominated by sedges, rushes, bulrushes, and grasses. Saltgrass and cordgrass marshes also provide wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Yellow Rails feed on invertebrates found in wetlands, especially aquatic insects and mollusks such as snails. They also consume seeds and other plant matter, which in some places comprises a third of their diet. They take most of their food by picking and gleaning from the ground or vegetation, but they also readily dip the head a few inches to take prey below the water’s surface. Prey items include beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, ants, fly larvae, bugs, earthworms, spiders, and small crustaceans. They eat seeds of smartweed, needlerush, sedges, nutrush, bristlegrass, foxtail, and probably many other marsh plants.

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Nest Placement


The nest is set on the ground, usually in upper (unflooded) parts of a sedge marsh, where there is relatively dense vegetation.

Nest Description

Both male and female construct a cup of fine sedges, covered with a canopy of dead marsh plants. The interior cup of the nest measures about 3.4 inches across and 2.2 inches deep. They also build a separate nest for brooding young.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4-10 eggs
Egg Description:

Creamy buff with dark reddish brown speckling.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered with black down, leave nest within one day. Fed by parents.

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Yellow Rails are hard to see, let alone study. They may be monogamous in their mating system, but some observations suggest that males may be polygynous (having two female mates) at times. On returning to nesting areas, males seek out and defend a territory by singing at different sites in the territory during the night. When singing, some males raise up in an upstretched posture and open the wings, revealing the white wing patches. Such behavior may be more common in the presence of a rival or a female. Males may bring food to potential mates or preen them with the bill, but no other courtship behavior is known. Males sometimes come into conflict over territories or females, which results in a rapid chase on foot or in the air. Both sexes construct the nest, incubate the eggs, and tend the young. Yellow Rails are also territorial on some wintering grounds. Winter territories in Texas have been measured at 2.9 to 4.2 acres.

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Restricted Range

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 12,000 and rates the Yellow Rail a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing it on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges. Yellow Rails sometimes collide with tall structures during nocturnal migration. Agricultural activities such as haying and disking also kill some, but the impacts on populations are not known. Despite its diminutive size, the Yellow Rail was a game species for many years but is no longer legally hunted in the United States or Canada. Degradation and losses of freshwater wetlands in both the breeding and wintering ranges are the most serious conservation threats to this species.

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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.

Leston, Lionel and Theodore A. Bookhout. (2015). Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

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

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