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Black rail
Laterallus jamaicensis - Black Rail; Arari, Maranhão, Brazil.jpg
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Laterallus jamaicensis map.svg

The black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) is a mouse-sized member of the bird family Rallidae.


The black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) belongs to the order Gruiformes and the family Rallidae.  

There are five recognized subspecies of the black rail:

  • Eastern black rail (L. j. jamaicensis): found in eastern North America, the Caribbean, and Central America. Nicknamed the "feathered mouse", the subspecies is partially migratory, breeding in the United States and wintering further south. The US Fish and Wildlife Service declared L. j. jamaicensis a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in October 2020. The eastern black rail can be differentiated from other subspecies by its gray crown and light brown nape.
  • California rail, L. j. coturniculus: found in both fresh and salt water marshes of California and Arizona, and is a resident species. The California rail can be distinguished from other subspecies by its shorter bill, and brown crown and upper back. The California Fish and Game Commission listed  L. j. coturniculus as Threatened in 1971 due to loss of wetland habitat.    
  • Junín rail, L. j.tuerosi: only found in the marshes of Lake Junín, Peru. The Junín Rail is considered Endangered because of its incredibly limited range. The Junín Rail can be distinguished from other subspecies by its plain undertail coverts and pale legs.
  • L. j. murivagans: found on the coast of Peru. This subspecies is over all paler, with white bars in the undertail coverts, distinguishing it from other subspecies. There is little information available on this subspecies
  • L. j. salinasi: found in Argentina and Chile, and is the southernmost subspecies. On average, this subspecies is larger than the rest. This subspecies can be distinguished from the rest by the large rufus patch on the upper back.  


The black rail is a small black bird with a short bill. Black rails usually weigh 29-39 g, are 10-15 cm in length, and have a wingspan of 8.7-11.0 in (22-28 cm).The body is dark, with white speckles along the back and wings. Both the beak and legs are dark. Adults have a red eye that appears around 3 months of age.

It will often make its presence known with its distinctive ki-ki-krr call or an aggressive, presumably territorial, growl. This is primarily uttered during the night, when these birds are most vocal. The peak of vocalization is during the first two weeks of May, when breeding and courtship behaviors are also at their peak.

Distribution and habitat

It is found in scattered parts of North America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific region of South America, usually in coastal salt marshes but also in some freshwater marshes. It is extinct or threatened in many locations due to habitat loss. The largest populations in North America are in Florida and California.

Behaviour and ecology

The black rail is rarely seen and prefers running in the cover of the dense marsh vegetation to flying.


This rail is territorial during the breeding season, and occasionally males will mate with two or more females. The nests of this bird are placed on the ground, in dense, swampy vegetation or in patches of flooded grass. The nests are bowl-shaped and built with vegetation loosely woven.

The clutch of this bird usually consists of six to eight creamy white speckled, with reddish-brown spots, eggs. These eggs are roundish and measure around 23 by 17 millimetres (0.91 by 0.67 in). They are incubated by both parents, taking shifts of approximately one hour each, for 16 to 20 days. The precocial young then hatch.

In 2015, the first ever breeding by black rails in South Carolina was captured through a  camera study. This species was once thought to be a non-breeding visitor to the state.


The black rail is an opportunistic feeder and consumes a wide range of food. Its diet includes seeds, insects, crustaceans and mollusks. The black rail forages by feeding along the water lines after high and low tide.


Under the IUCN Red List, the black rail is listed as endangered with decreasing populations. The IUCN estimates there are between 28,000 and  92,000 mature individuals remaining. The largest threats to the Black Rail are habitat destruction and severe weather events.

The wetland habitat that the black rail depends on has steadily declined through the last several decades, due to draining for development and conversion to agricultural land.  

In addition to declining populations and increasing threats, the black rail is also impacted by the lack of scientific studies available. Because of the secretive and hard to observe nature of the bird, there is very little know about them to help prevent population decline.  

They are preyed upon by many avian (hawks, egrets, and herons) and mammalian (foxes and cats) predators, and rely on the cover of thick marsh vegetation for protection. High tides are dangerous time for black rails, as they are quite vulnerable to predation outside the marsh.

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