Black Rails


California Black Rail
Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus


Photo taken by Laurie Hall

The Black Rail is one of North America’s most elusive birds. It is the smallest of the rails found in the Americas and has a poorly understood distribution. There are actually five recognized subspecies of the Black Rail, two in North America and three in South America. The Eastern Black Rail (L. j. jamaicensis) breeds in the eastern United States down into Central America, while until the early 1990’s the California Black Rail was known to breed in coastal California (including the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary), northwestern Baja California, the lower Imperial Valley and the lower Colorado River.

In 1994, Black Rails were first discovered at Slicks Canyon at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Yuba County.  Soon after they were discovered, researchers from SFREC found them in numerous shallow, densely vegetated wetlands throughout the northern Sierra Nevada foothills. They have been continuously searched for and studied ever since.

Slicks Canyon, Yuba County, where the first Black Rails in the foothills were discovered.

Black Rails are sparrow-sized (length 12-15 cm) dark marsh birds with laterally compressed bodies that allow them to maneuver through dense marsh vegetation. They are blackish-gray in color, except for a chestnut patch on the back of the neck and white spotting on the back, wings and tail. Adults have bright red eyes. Males and females are very similar in coloration and size, except that females have a lighter-colored throat.

Black Rails prefer moving on foot, hidden in dense vegetation, to flying. As a result, they are rarely seen. They will, however, make their presence known with their distinctive ki-ki-krr call or an aggressive, presumably territorial, growl. Black Rails build well concealed nests on the ground, often under dense vegetation, and usually lay between 5-8 eggs per clutch. Chicks are precocial, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of hatching. Very little is known about Black Rail behavior or interactions with other species. 

Photo taken by Laurie Hall

A Black Rail chick soon after hatching.