Widespread in the sense that it occurs on the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts as well as some inland locations, but only very locally distributed within those areas, the Black Rail is also notoriously secretive and difficult to locate or observe. Rampant loss of wetland habitats is a major threat to Black Rails, and continuing conservation efforts are vital.
Though it may be surprising to some, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are both known predators of Black Rails. Vulnerability to theses predators is greatest at extreme high tides, when Black Rails may be forced into smaller areas with insufficient cover.
Description of the Black Rail
The Black Rail is a tiny, secretive rail, mostly black in color with a chestnut nape and white speckling on the upperparts and flanks.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults.
Tidal and inland marshes.
Insects, seeds, and snails.
Forages while walking through marsh vegetation.
Breeds along portions of the east and west coasts, as well as widely scattered inland locations. Inland breeders migrate south in the winter to the Gulf Coast.
With its limited range, small size, nocturnal habits, and secretive nature, the Black Rail is one of the harder birds to observe in North America.
Black Rails travel along lanes made by meadow mice through dense marsh vegetation.
The call is usually described as “keek-kee-derr”.
No other rail is as small or dark in color.
The nest is a cup of plant material placed in vegetation above the water line.
Color: White or buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 17-20 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) soon after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Black Rail
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black Rail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CRECISCUS JAM AICENSIS (Gmelin)
Although the little black rail was discovered in Jamaica in 1760 and received its scientific name in 1788, it was not discovered in the United States until 1836, when Audubon (1840) described and figured it from specimens given him by Titian R. Peale. Practically nothing was known about its distribution and habits in North America for 100 years after its discovery in Jamaica. For a full account of the early history of this species 1 would refer the reader to Dr. J. A. Allen’s (1900) interesting paper, in which is told about all that was known about it up to that time. Much has been learned about it since and many of its nests have been found, but its distribution and life history are still imperfectly known and specimens of the bird are still rare in collections. Owing to its secretive habits, it is seldom seen, and it is probably much commoner and more widely distributed than is generally supposed. William Brewster’s (1901) interesting paper on the “Kicker” furnishes some food for thought and some suggestions for solving “an ornithological mystery.” I have no doubt that the black rail breeds in some of the marshes of southeastern Massachusetts; in fact, a nest is said to have been found in Chatham; but though I have explored many miles of marshes and spent many hours in the search, I have never seen a trace of this elusive little bird.
Nesting: Dr. E. W. Nelson (1877) was the first to discover and describe a nest of the little black rail in the United States, of which he writes:
During the spring of 1875 I saw three specimens in the Calumet Marshes. The first was observed early in May. On the 19th of June, the same season, while collecting with me near the Calumet River, Frank DeWitt, of Chicago, was fortunate enough to discover a nest of this species containing 10 freshly laid eggs. The nest was placed in a deep cup-shaped depression in a perfectly open situation on the border of a marshy spot, and its only concealment was such as a few straggling carices afforded. It is composed of soft grass blades loosely interwoven in a circular manner. The nest, in shape and construction, looks much like that of a meadow lark. The following are its dimensions in inches: Inside depth, 2.50; Inside diameter, 3.25; outside depth, 3.50; outside diameter, 4.50.
Next came the discovery of two nests in Connecticut, near Saybrook, by Judge John N. Clark (1884). The first nest was brought to him by a neighbor, who had decapitated the rail on her nest and 9 eggs while mowing in a meadow. Of the second nest he says:
On the 6th of June, 1844. 1 made a trip to ‘Great Tsland”: a tract of salt meadow near the mouth of the Connecticut River, on its eastern shore: in search of nests of Ammodrami which abound in that locality. During a very successful hunt for them I observed a tuft of green grass carefully woven and interlaced together too artificially to be the work of nature. “Merely another Finch’s neat,” I mused, as I carefully parted the green bower overhanging it. But wasn’t there an extra and audible beat to my pulse when before my astonished gaze lay three beautiful little black rail’s eggs? Recovering from my surprise I carefully replaced the disarranged curtain that excluded the sun from the precious eggs, fixed some permanent ranges, and quietly departed to await the completion of the set. A week later, on the 13th of June, I again visited the neat and found therein the full complement of nine eggs. This nest was situated about 40 rods back from the shore of the river, on the moist meadow, often overflowed by the spring tidea. The particular spot had not been mowed for several years, and the new grass, springing up through the old, dry, accumulated growths of previous years, was thick, short, and not over 8 or 10 inches in height: a fine place for rails to glide unseen among its intricacies. The nest after the complement of eggs were deposited in it resembled that of the common meadow lark, it eonsistiDg of fine meadow grasses loosely put together, with a covering of the standing grasses woven over it and a passage and entrance at one side. I must add an account of my efforts to secure the little black rail with the set. I devoted the whole day to this special end, and visited the nest about every half hour through the day, approaching it with every possible caution, and having a little tuft of cotton directy over the nest to indicate the exact spot; but although I tried from every quarter with the utmost diligence and watchfulness, I was never able to obtain the slightest glimpse of the bird: never perceived the slightest quiver of the surrounding grass to mark her movements as she glided away, and yet I found the eggs warm every time, indicating that she had but just left them.
Since that Judge Clark has “met with eggs of the species from four different nests,” one of which he (1897) describes, as follows:
One was found on the salt meadow near the west shore of the Connecticut River near its mouth in Old Saybrook. The situation was on the bank of a small ditch which was partially grown up with sedges and nearly dry at the time of the find. The meadow was a tract which had not been mowed in some years and on the ditch bank was a large growth of old dry blue grass, of previous years, partially prostrated by winter’s ice and snow and held up from the ground by the new growth sparsely working its way through to the light. As I lifted a bulging tuft of it I was startled to find a nest beneath with a beautiful set of six eggs of the little black rail. Carefully smoothing back the drooping grasses I left them hoping for an increase which however failed to develop. Four days later I again gently lifted the covering and found the bird sitting closely on her treasures. At a motion on my part she darted from the nest across the ditch and stopped without taking flight in a little tuft of grass within an inch of my boot; at a slight movement on my part she darted into another tuft a few feet behind me, and as I essayed to turn she darted back to her former position by my boot. I say darted, for I can think of no other word that so nearly expresses her every movement, which was so swift that the eye could scarcely follow it. I wanted that bird greatly for still I have no representative of the species in my collection, though it is quite complete of that class .found in Connecticut otherwise, but vain was every effort to get a stroke of my staff at it. Its next movement was to spring into the air and take flight, dropping into a patch of cat-tails a few rods away. Its flight was after the manner of the rail family and I could easily have shot it on the wing had my gun been with me. This is the only bird of the species I have ever seen.
Richard C. Harlow (1913), who has probably found more black raiis’ nests than anyone else in North America, thus describes the first two nests seen by him in New Jersey, one of which was collected for him: on the edge of the marshes back of Brigantine, on June 20, 1912. On the 29th I visited the nest from which the set had been taken. It was built in a low marshy meadow, overgrown with salt grass and sedge and very skillfully concealed in a thick mass of mixed green and dead grass, so that it was completely hidden from above. In composition, it was better built and deeper cupped than the nests of the Virginia, sora, king, and clapper rails that I have seem In size the nest was little larger than the average structure of the robin, but deeper-cupped and built entirely of the dry, yellowish stalks of the sedges, and there in the lining, clung several black feathers. Thinking that there might be other nests in the vicinity we began searching every thick clump of marsh grass that we saw, and presently came upon another also containing seven eggs. It was placed among thick clumps of marsh grass and was quite invisible until the grass waa parted from above. It was an inch above the salt meadow and was interwoven on all sides with the surrounding stalks.
On June 10, 1903, a small negro boy showed to Arthur T. Wayne (1905) a nest he had found on t.he ground in an oat field, near Mount Pleasant in South Carolina. “The nest contained eight eggs, and was built among the oats on high ground, and made entirely of the dry oat leaves arranged in a circular manner, but not arched over.” George H. Stuart, 3d, has sent me the following notes:
On July 4, 1919, Julian K. Potter and the writer flushed a small rail in a marsh an acre or two in extent beyond the sand dunes immediately back of the ocean beach on an island below Beach Haven, N. J. Searching for the nest in the belief that the bird was a little black rail, we were rewarded by finding it placed in the long grass, the tops of which were so drawn over as to almost completely hide the eggs from view. The nest, which was composed entirely of the same rather fine grass, was placed about one inch from the damp ground and contained eight eggs, very heavily incubated. On returning several times at intervals of 10 winutes we had opportunities of observing the female on the nest, her bright red eyes being the most prominent feature. On each occasion when leaving the eggs it darted from the nest into the surrounding grass never raising and with such celerity that it was impossible to observe her movement, the action resembling more that of a mouse than a bird.
Donald J. Nicholson sends me the following notes on the breeding of this species in Florida:
It was on the 13th of July, 1926, that I discovered the two sets of black rail, on Merritt’s Island, in the Dusky Seaside colony. I had just about given up hope of finding any more sparrow nests when I heard a pair singing and thought I would take one more last search for them before going home. I got out of the car and was going over to where they were when, under my feet, a small black bird rose feebly ïand flew wabbly and weakly, low over the salicornia, and dropped into the dense growth 20 feet away. At first I thought it was a young bird of some kind, but the thought struck me that it might be the rare species of which we had no breeding record, so I began a search and almost immediately upon parting the grass 7 feet from where it rose I looked upon a cozy small nest. ‘with six fresh eggs of the black rail. I knew the eggs as soon as I saw them, as I had just received a set from Henry W. Davis a few days before, a set of eight taken in June, 1926, in New Jersey, The nest was made of dead Bermuda grass placed on damp ground among a thick growth of the same under a sparse growth of salicornia, or pickleweed, with the green grass bent over to form an arch, with an entrance on the east side, giving a view to more open growth, with a background of a heavy dense tangled patch of salicornia growing to the river’s edge, 100 yards away. The nest was completely and entirely concealed and could be seen only by parting the grass. The bird made no sound and was not seen again.
Eggs: The black rail lays usually from 6 to 10 eggs, but as many as 13 have been found. They are ovate in shape and the shell is smooth with little or no gloss. The ground color is huffy white or pinkish white and they are spotted rather evenly with fine dots of bright browns and pale drabs. The measurements of 92 eggs average 25.6 by 19.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.5 by 20.5, 23,6 by 18.5, and 25.5 by 18 millimeters.
Plumages: I have never seen a downy young black rail, but Mr. McMullen tells me that it is black, like all other young rails, but smaller of course. The young birds referred to below by Mr. Pennock, taken on September 11, probably represent the juvenal plumage. They resemble adults, but are grayer below and blacker above, with less brown in the wings; the throat is grayish white; there is very little brown on the back and hind neck; and the white spots are duller and smaller. This plumage is worn but a short time, as it is replaced during the late fall, November and December, by a plumage which is practically adult. As to the molts and plumages of the adults, very little can be learned from the limited material available. Black rails are difficult to collect at any time, hut during the molting season they are more secretive than ever.
Food: Very little is known about the food of the black rail. It probably consists largely of insects and other small bits of animal life, with perhaps some seeds of aquatic plants. P. H. Gosse (1847) says that the gizzard of one taken in Jamaica “contained a few hard seeds.” One that Stanley Cobb (1906) had in captivity for a few days showed himself to be insectivorous. “Peeping timidly about the ferns, he saw a little insect on the underside of a leaf, and quickly snatched it.” He ate earthworms eagerly, but died on the fourth day “after eating several hard bugs.”
Behavior: The black rail is not fond of flying and is seldom seen in flight. Ludlow Griscom (1915), who had a good opportunity to observe one, says that “the flight is much more feeble than that of any other rail with which I am familiar; the bird seemed barely to sustain its weight in the air, while its legs dangled down helplessly behind.” But when on the ground it runs swiftly and disappears under the nearest cover as quickly as a mouse. Mr. Cobb (1906) relates the following interesting experience with a black rail in Milton, Massachusetts: “An extract from my log of May 16, 1904., reads” As I was standing by the B: s spring to-day, I heard something among the branches of a small pine near by. On looking up, I saw a small bird come tumbling down through the soft pine tips, now and then clinging to one for a second Finally he landed on the ground. Here he stopped for a minute on the wet pine needles as if to recover his balance and then made for cover. While this was going on I had stood watching the proceedings with interest, but as soon as the bird started to run I saw at once, by his diminutive size and peculiar shape, that he must be something unusual. I quickly gave chase, and, with the help of my terrier, soon cornered the bird in some underbrush; but, after getting close enough to touch him with my hand, he escaped to another hiding place. Knowing now that he was the rare black rail, I redoubled my zeal, and, at last after an exciting quarter of an hour, I caught the little fellow. The strange thing about the chase was that he never attempted to fly more than a few yards. If chased into the open, he would take wing and flutter into the nearest cover, but never once did he try a prolonged flight. In running on the ground he was very skillful, and, had it not been for the open character of the piney hillside on which he fell, I never should have seen him an instant after he struck the ground. The only explanation that I can give of the little rail’s strange appearance is that, tired out by a long migration and bewildered in the fog, he had lost his way and fallen tc earth exhausted. This theory complies well with weather conditions. There was a northeast breeze driving in a fog from the ocean, and, whenever the fog lifted, hurrying clouds could be seen passing across the sky.
T. E. McMullen writes to me that he has seen them fly out of the marsh and alight on horizontal limbs of bayberry bushes and remain there until he was within 6 feet of them, just like sparrows. H. L. Stoddard (1916), who collected a black rail near Chicago, says:
The specimen was first flushed in a small cat-tail growth, and flew rather strongly at a good height for 5 or 6 rods before dropping back into the scant vegetation, which here stood in a foot or so of water. On going to the spot the bird flushed again, nearly underfoot, and was secured. The flight of this mdi.. vidual was fully as strong as that of sora and Virginia rails seen a short time previously.
Mr. Wayne (1905) took special pains to identify the notes of both. sexes, which he explains as follows:
As soon as she entered the standing oats she began to call, which notes resem: bled the words ” croo-croo-croo-o,” and then again almost exactly like the commencement of the song of the yellow billed cuckoo. This was answered at once by the male but his song was very different and the notes may best be described by the words, “kik, kik, kik, kik,” or even “ku/c, ku/c, ku/c, ku/c.” As the birds were rare, and the field would be plowed as soon as the oats were harvested, I determined to make every effort to capture both parents, after listening to the song of both birds for more than one hour. I walked into the standing oats, and little did I dream of ever flushing one of the birds, but to my great surprise one flushed almost immediately and with a squib charge of dust shot I killed it, which proved by dissection to be the female. I then tried to flush the male knowing the one I had was the female by the coloration), so as to be positive of the song of both sexes. After hunting for more than 40 minutes I failed to flush the mate, so went home and skinned the one which I had secured. At 3 p. m. o’clock I went in search of the male, accompanied by a friend, Lieut. J. D. Cozby, who brought with him his fine pointer dog. Althuugh we heard the notes of the bird incessantly, which never changed from “kik, kik, kik, kik” or “kuk, kuk, kuk, kuk,” it was absolutely impossible to flush him but once in two hours’ careful search when he flew into the oat stubble, but ran like a phantom into the standing oats. It was nearly 7 o’clock p. m. and I was fast losing hope of obtaining the male, when I saw the dog pointing, but the bird ran between Lieut. Cozby and myself, then flushed as it passed me. I quickly requested my friend to shoot and by a fortunate shot he succeeded in killing it. When it is realized that it required tour hours’ constant search in order to secure the male it can be understood how secretive the rail is in its environment.
The descriptions of the notes of this rail, as given by others, are not sufficiently different from the above to warrant quoting them. It seems likely that the notes described by Mr. Brewster (1901) as coming from the mysterious “kicker,” were referable to the black rail; but there is a bare possibility that they may have been made by a yellow rail, which is known to produce similar notes. Mr. T. E. McMullen tells me that the call of the black rail sounds like “didee-dunk,” three times repeated, with the accent on the last syllable.
Winter: Mr. C. J. Pennock, writing from St. Marks, Florida, has sent me the following notes:
The presumption seems probable that they occur here regularly in considerable numbers during the fall and winter. Being so extremely elusive, and I believe silent while here, their presence is most difficult to establish unless they are forced from the dense cover of our extensive marshes by an unusually high tide. During such occurrences two birds were taken by hand on September 4, 1915, and six were captured from a boat by hand on September 11, 1919. Two of these latter birds were birds of the year and showed some down while the primaries were but just pushing from the sheaths. The indication being certain that they had been reared on the marsh where they were found. A third one of the six was a bird of the year but older than the two tiny ones.
Range: Enstern United States to Central America.
Breeding range: North to Kansas (Garden City, Finney County, probably Beloit and Manhattan); Iowa (Linn County); Minnesota (Hennepin County); Illinois (Chicago); probably southern Ontario (Dundas); Connecticut (Saybrook); and Massachusetts (Chatham). East to Massachusetts (Chatham); Connecticut (Saybrook); New Jersey (Mount Holly, Camden, Brigantine, and Beasley’s Point); probably Virginia (Wallops Island); North Carolina (Raleigh); South Carolina (Mount Pleasant); and Florida (Alachna County and Merritt’s Island). South to Florida (Alachua County, Merritt’s Island and Wakulla County); western North Carolina (Statesville and Weaverville); Illinois (Philo); and Kansas (Princeton). West to Kansas (Garden City).
The black rail also has been reported as occurring in summer from Wisconsin (Lake Koshkonong~; and Ohio (Grand Reservoir). A specimen believed to be this species was reported as seen near Tucson, Arizona, on April 23, 1881 (Brewster).
Winter range: The black rail is known to winter in Jamaica and Guatemala (Duenas); and it appears to occur rarely at this season north to Louisiana (INew Orleans) and Florida (the Tortugas Islands, Key West, St. Marks, and Daytona). It has been reported in winter from Tybee Island, Georgia (Hoxie), but this case lacks subsequent confirmation.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: District of Columbia, Woodridge, May 14, 1923, and Washington, May 29, 1891; Massachusetts, Boston, May 5, 1913, and Milton, May 16, 1904; Illinois, Canton, April 15, 1895, and. Rantoul, May 11, 1914; Ohio, Medina, April 14, 1921, and near Carthage, May 17, 1890; Texas, Houston, April 21; and Kansas, Neosho Falls, March 18, 1886.
Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Kansas, Lawrence, September 26, 1885; Illinois, Chicago, October 15, 1903, and Canton, October 27, 1894; Iowa, Iowa City, October 11, 1885; Maine, Scarboro, October 4, 1881; New Jersey, near Camden, September 22, 1887; Maryland, Piscataway, September 25, 1877, and Mount Calvert, October 19, 1906; District of Columbia, near Washington, September 25, 1877; and South Carolina, Mount Pleasant, November 9,1906.
The typical form of this rail (Creciscus jamaicen&is jamaicensis) is now said to occupy Jamaica, Cuba, and Porto Rico; and the bird found in the eastern United States has recently been named Creciscuis jamaicensis stoddardi Coale, as a distinct subspecies.
Egg dates: New Jersey: 26 records, May 30 to August 12; 13 records, June 12 to 23.