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Clapper Rail

These birds have gotten their name thanks to their distinctive call that sounds like a loud, sharp clap.

Largely coastal in distribution, the Clapper Rail is made up of many subspecies which vary in size and plumage coloration. Preferring to walk or run, the Clapper Rail also swims well, and though capable of flight, seldom chooses to do so.

Courtship or bonding displays are performed, along with feeding of the female by the male during the early breeding season. While territorial, defense becomes less aggressive once the young are nearing the age of independence.

The large Clapper Rail is abundant in saltwater marshes and mangrove swamps from the U.S. East Coast to Central America and the Caribbean. In 2014, the species was split into three: Clapper Rail; (east and Gulf Coast)  Ridgway’s Rail of California, Arizona, and Nevada; and Mangrove Rail of South America.


Description of the Clapper Rail


The Clapper Rail is a large, brownish rail with a long bill, reddish breast, grayish edgings on the back feathers, and white barring on the flanks. Coloration varies by location, Atlantic coast birds are grayish, west coast birds much more orange underneath.  Gulf Coast birds (shown below)  integrade between the two in coloration.  Length: 14 in.  Wingspan: 19 in.

Clapper Rail 

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Sexes similar. Females average smaller and paler than males.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are duller and browner.


Salt marshes and brackish marshes.


Insects, crustaceans, and fish.Insects, crustaceans, and fish.


Forages in shallow water or on mud.


Resident along portions of the U.S. and Mexican coastlines.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Clapper Rail.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

Studying rails is difficult in their dense marsh habitats, so many details of their lives remain a mystery.

At least in some populations, Clapper Rails will use the same breeding territory in subsequent years.


A series of “kek” notes often repeated ten or more times.


Similar Species

King Rail
King Rails have buffy edging to the back feathers but are otherwise quite similar. King Rails are found in brackish and salt water marshes, Clapper found in fresh water, ranges overlap in brackish waters. The two species are sometimes considered to be the same species.

Virginia Rail
Virginia Rails are similar to the Clapper Rail, but much smaller.  Virginia Rails are found inland, Clapper Rails are coastal.


The nest is a cup of grasses and sedges placed in vegetation above the high water mark.

Number: 7-11.
Color: Yellowish or olive with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 20-23 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in hours after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Clapper 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 Clapper Rail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


As its name implies this bird is a product of the Golden State and it never wanders far from the general vicinity of the Golden Gate~ Messrs. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say:

No other game bird in California has so limited a distribution as has the California clapper rail. The salt marshes bordering the southern arm of San Francisco Bay and a few smaller nearby areas of the same character alone seem to afford the proper kinds of food and shelter necessary for its existence. It is found in small numbers on the marshes of Monterey Bay near Elkhorn, Monterey County, and individuals have been recorded from Tomales Bay and Humboldt Bay. The California clapper rail makes its permanent home on the salt marshes where the vegetation consists chielly of pickleweed (Salicornia ambigua) and an evergreen shrub (Grinde lie cuneifolia). Here it may easily be found at any time of the year skulking along the banks of the small muddy sloughs which penetrate the marsh in every direction.

Nesting: The same authors refer to the nesting habits of t.he California clapper rail, as follows:

A high piece of marsh ground, usually on the bank of a slough, is selected for a nesting site. The nest may be concealed in salt grass or pickleweed, or under a small bush. It is a platform built up 3 to 6 inches above the ground, and measures about 10 inches across with a cavity in the center 1~ inches deep. Grasses or dead and living stems of pickleweed are used for building material. A well-marked trail leading off through the adjacent vegetation is usually discernible. A nest examined by the authors on May 7, 1914, was composed of closely matted Salicornia stems, some of the stems being bent over from the growing plants surrounding it. The structure was well saucered, the cavity containing the eggs being 5~ inches across and 1j/~ inches deep. The rim was 2~ inches above the ground which was still wet from a recent high tide. The nearest &ough was 20 feet away. Like some other rails this one sometimes builds nests which it never uses. Three or four new nests, often uncompleted, apparently possessing all the advantages of the one used, are occasionaliy to be found in the near vicinity of an occupied nest. The female is a very e~lose sitter and will sometimes remain on the nest until the intruder is within 2 feet of her. She will then lump from the nest and either fly away, or glide swiftTy through the grass or along the edge of a slough.

Dr. Barton W. Evermann has sent me his notes on his experiences with the nesting habits of this species on Bay Farm Island, Alameda County. His records include observations on some 40 nests found during the month of April, which seems to be the height of the nesting season; he found a total of 13 nests with eggs on one day, April 9,1916. In summarizing his notes, he says:

The dates given were probably those of the height of the nesting season. without exception the nests were under, or more or less protected by, clumps of Salicornia or Grindelia, or both. The birds would usually slink away from the nest when one came upon them cautiously. If one came upon the nest hurriedly they would leave with a rush, sometimes cackling. Bay Farm Island is, or soon will be, a thing of the past. It is being cut up into truck farms, thus destroying the best breeding grounds of this species in the State.

Eggs: The California clapper rail lays from 5 to 14 eggs, but the usual set consists of from S to 10. The shape is ovate and the shell is smooth and glossy. The eggs of this and the next species are the lightest colored of any of the eggs in the clapper rail group, lighter even than those of the king rail. The ground color is pale “cartridge buff” or “ivory yellow.” They are sparingly and irregularly marked with a few small blotches and spots, and a larger number of minute dots, of drab and brown, such as pale shades of “purple drab,” “ecru drab,” or “drab-gray,” darker shades of the same colors, and various shades of dark browns, such as “chocolate” and “Vandyke brown.” The measurements of 57 eggs average 44.1 by 31.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 47.9 by 32.6, 46.9 by 33.4, 41.2 by 31, 43.2 by 29.6 millimeters.

Young: Ernest Adams (1900) says: “I have often seen two birds about a nest and I amcertain that the male assistsinincubation.”

W. Otto Emerson (1885) has published the following interesting note regarding the young:

One nest of seven glossy jet black chicks was found, seemingly just out of the shell, one not quite dry. All but this one would hold their long necks out, moving them from side to side, and calling in a low plaintive tone “pe: ee–ep, pe: ee: ep,” very much like a weak young chicken. Putting tbese little fellows in my basket for further study at home, no more attention was paid to them until I got to my buggy, when I found two of them missing, knowing no doubt, the fate awaiting them. On skinning one I noticed a small claw sticking out from the second joint of each wing, not more than a sixteenth part of an inch long, claw part turning down, of a light horn color and comparing only to a little kitten’s claw; it wag found on all the chicks.

Plumages: There are not enough specimens of the California clap rail, in immature plumages, in eastern collections to work out the per sequence of plumages to maturity; but what material I have seen gives no reason to think that the molts and plumages are essentially different from those of the king rails and clapper rails, all of which are closely related. The downy young is black with a slight greenish gloss on the upper parts. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) describe the juvenal plumage as “similar to that of the adult, but with streaking on back duller, less strikingly contrasted, lower surface very much lighter, more buffy in tone, and barring on sides and 1h~nks scarcely or not at all in evidence.”

Food: According to Grinndll, Bryant, and Storer (1918), the food of the California clapper rail: is made up almost entirely of animal matter: worms, crustaceans, and the like, as afforded on the salt marshes. In the gullet of a bird shot on a salt marsh, near an artesian well, W. E. Bryant (1893) found a good sized frog. Several stomachs from birds taken at Bay Farm Island, Alameda County, were found by us to contain only parts of crabs (Hemigrepsus oregonensis).

Donald A. Cohen (1895) says:

Their chief food is crustaceans, and the craws of those I shot were mostly empty. One contained bits of leaf of a plant common to the salt marsh and one bird had swallowed a mud crab the size of a Quarter of a doUar and had discarded the legs and pincers, probably to prevent the crab causing trouble after being swallowed.

Behavior: Referring to the behavior of the California clapper rail? Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) write:

Its very long and unwebbed toes make large chicken-like tracks spaced about 10 inches apart in the soft mud of the slough banks, and these are very easy to recognize. The voice, too, is characteristic. It is a harsh, mechanical cackling: “chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck,” or “cheek-a-cheek-a-check “: uttered rapidly for Eeveral seconds and sounding as if two or more birds rather than a single one were participating in its production. When flushed this rail jumps almost straight up into the air for 6 or 8 feet and then flies off in a clumsy manner, its short, narrow wings moving at the rate of two or three beats per second. These flights ~re usually short, the bird soon dropping down again into the protection of the marsh vegetation. Like all rails, the clapper rail is, when need be, very skillful at keeping out of sight. Sometimes individuals appear shy, flushing at a distance, or running toward the denser vegetation at great speed, with lowered head and elusive mien; at other times they walk out into the open in bottoms of sloughs at close range and view the intruder seemingly with perfect equanimity. They have a long running stride, and the body is held close to the ground. The narrowly compressed body enables them to slip easily between the rigid upright stems of a sort of rush which grows in thick beds along the larger salt sloughs. If not thoroughly alarmed, rails will sometimes stop or hesitate on open ground, when the peculiar twitching movement of the tail may be clearly seen. This member is held vertically and the twitching of it is rendered conspicuous because of the white color flashed from the undertail coverts. When walking, the head and tail twitch forward in unison with each stride. When thoroughly alarmed this rail will take to water and swim considerable distances, as, in one observed instance, across a 30-foot slough.

Mr. Adams (1900) says:

During several seasons of collecting, I have noticed that some days I would kill nothing but males of this species, while at another place only females were shot. Again when two of us were separated on the marsh one would procure males and the other females only. This would indicate that in fall and winter at least, the sexes resort to different feeding grounds. The birds fly very heavily and only for short distances, hut the fleetness of foot is as remarkable as it is ungainly. When wounded they make good use of their legs and claws as well as their bill. The rail rarely swims for the mere pleasure it affords, but it can often be seen crossing a large slough, and when injured is very agile in the water.

Game: I must quote again from Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918)., regarding the game qualities of this species, as follows:

The California clapper rail has long been considered an excellent bird for the table, and formerly great numbers were sold on the markets of San Francisco. The weight of an adult bird, freshly taken by the authors, was three-fourths of a pound (340 grams); so that the food value of a clapper rail as regards size is not inconsiderable. The sport furnished in hunting clapper rails is of a rather tame sort; for the birds are ordinarily not wild, and, owing to their slow, or sluggish, straightaway flight, are easy to hit on the wing. Unlike many other game birds, this one seems to be but slightly endowed with effective means of seIf-preser~’ation. When pursued, a clapper rail is said to sometimes hide its head, ostrichlike, in a tuft of grass; and it is not an uncommon thing for dogs to catch the birds alive. For these reasons, as well as for the fact that they are considered by many to be excellent eating, these rails have been slaughtered in great numbers.

Few game birds in this State were more surely on the road to total extinction than was this species just previous to the passage of the Federal Migratory Bird Law. The reclaiming of much of their former breeding grounds was concentrating them into smaller and smaller areas, where they were still more easily sought out and kiUed. Ray (1902),speaking of the abundance of this bird in San Mateo County, says: “As late as 1889, I remember sportsmen returning with as many as 200 clapper rails, while now one would find it exceedingly hard to bag a dozen.” Mr. Samuel Hubbard, jr., of Oakland, has stated to us that formerly during high tides as many as 40 clapper rail could casily be killed along Oakland Creek. None of tbese birds are to be found in that locality at the present time. Accounts generally agree that the California clapper rail is much less abundant now than it once was. Even the extended annual close season, in force for a few years and now replaced by total protection, was not sufficient to protect this bird; for its haunts are so readily accessible to the Bay cities that hunting remained excessive. In 1913, the Federal Migratory Bird Law was passed, and within two years a marked increase was observable locally on the Alameda County marshes: proof th~t adequate protection long enough continued will restore the species. The worst enemy of the rail now remaining is the Norway rat, which infests many parts of the salt marshes, and whose depredations during the nesting season have come to our personal notice.

The California clapper rail is truly a native of the Golden State, being found nowhere else in the world. It deserves protection on esthetic grounds, if not on economic ones. It is entirely within possibility that at the expiration of the present closed term of years, hunting can again be safely allowed: with of course, a small bag limit and short season.

Mr Cohen (1895) writes:

Rail hunting at flood tide is not the highest sportsmanship, as the rail take re¶uge on high ground, and, when very little of that is exposed your dog is sure to put up a bird almost every few yards. Occasionally these birds will climb into a thick, short bush, common to the salt marsh, or sit contentedly on a pile of drift or a floating log, and at such times can be hit with an oar, but the birds to-day, with the exception of one, were flushed before I saw them, and this one was standing partly concealed among some salt grass in several inches of water, and tipping his body quickly up and down; a common habit. Again, the rail is not a swift flyer, flying in a straight line, and when hunters are numerous one of them wiil get the bird you miss if it flies his way, or mark it down and flush it again and keep Mr. Rail on the hop-skip-and-jump until he is shot or has presence of mind to sink into the water and keep his head out by holding to a stem by his bill. This is a favorite trick of theirs when wounded.

Enemies: Besides the sportsmen and the rats, this poor rail has other enemies to contend with, of which W. Leon Dawson (1923) says:

According to Mr. Chase Littlejohn, still another enemy has arisen to make the life of this bird miserable: a certain mussel once imported from the East. 1’his thrifty bivalve flourishes and increases enormously in just that range which has been from time immemorial the peculiar province of the rail; viz, the mud strip just below the line of vegetation on the bankb of the tide channels. Now the bird must seek its living here or change its habits entirely. But the mussel is a sensitive, not to mention a supercilious creature, and when our native son ateps carelessly it closes its doors with a bang: and often seizes the hapless rail by the toe. So common is this that many specimens with maimed feet or missing toes have been taken, and a few have been captured right where they were being beld captive by the mussels. Others, more fortunate in escaping, are nevertheless condemned to drag about a ball on the foot, a mass of dried mud and trash of which the mussel is the unyielding nucleus. The bivalve apparently never releases its hold, and even in death, which must Boon occur, does not relax its deathly grasp upon its victim. In one instance at least, a bird was seized by the bill, and although it was able to wrest the bivalve free from its anchorage, the creature had closed upon its beak with such a grip that the bird was unable to get food, and was found in a famished and attenuated condition. This specimen Mr. Littlejohn has in his collection, a mute reminder of one knows not how many scores of similar tragedies.

Range: A nonmigratory species, inhabiting the coast region of California from Humboldt Bay south to Monterey Bay. At present restricted largely to the region of San Francisco Bay (Petaluma, Tomales Bay, Alameda, Haywards, San Matoo, Redwood City, and Menlo Park) and Monterey Bay (Elkhorn). Accidental on the Farallon Islands.

Egg dates: California: 107 records, April 1 to July 13; 54 records, April 10 to 25.


For many years the clapper rails of the coastal marshes of California and northern Lower California were all supposed to be one species, Rallus obsoletus, until Outram Bangs (1899) separated the southern bird as a distinct species and named it Rallus levipes. It is similiar to obsoletus, but is slightly smaller, the back is darker and more olive in tone, the breast is a richer tone of cinnamon and theTe is a whitish, instead of a rusty stripe from the bill over the eye. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) suggest that “it might be considered merely a southern race of ‘obsoletus.’ Neither of them is migratory, and there is a strip of coast nearly 200 miles in extent between the southern limit of the California clapper rail and the northernmost station for the light-footed rail.” They also observe that “there are no essential differences in the general habits of the two species. The light-footed rail, however, has been found breeding in an inland brackish marsh though, to be sure, this was not far from the seacoast.” Nesting: : W. Lee Chambers has sent me the following notes:

On April 13th 1917, I visited a salt-water ~narsli near Long Beach, Calif., and found an island fairly well inhabited by the light-footed rail. This was the only piece of land not used in cattle grazing, and was probably because of its being so low and not large enough to be of any grazing value. The total area was approximately five acres and in any kind of a storm it must have been completely covered by water. On this date I noticed three sets with eight eggs in each, one nest with two eggs and another nest which had just been finished and about ready for eggs. One fresh egg was found washed up on the beach. The island was practically covered with salicornia and the birds would waddle over this grass in their search for food, forming reguLir well-defined trails leading to the water’s edge. I visited this island during several successive years and found that by following up these runways from the water’s edge, they would invariably lead up to a feeding ground or a nest. The nests were generally on the highest piece of ground in that immediate vicinity that happen to be covered with saIlcornia. The bird would evidently waddle under a clump of salicornia and form a nest on the bare ground. A very poor nest was generally the result, for apparently the only lining was what happened to be on the gronud at the spot chosen for the nest. A line of power poles ran across this island, and in digging the holes for the poles some little piles of dirt were left. On these hillocks the salicornia seemed to grow very rank and two of these clumps were selected for nesting sites. In summing up the nest sites, it seemed that every available bit of high ground near the water was occupied by its nest. These nests would be not over 100 feet from a body of water, and generally only a few feet. The birds were very quiet and the only time I saw them was when they would flush from immediately under my feet, and then they immediately took to the water and dove out of sight.

A. M. Ingersoll writes to me that the-: nests are generally well hidden on a dry portion of a salt marsh, but are sometimes placed over water of a foot or more in depth. In one instance a nest was placed against the back of a dead hog on a dry sandy beach several hundred feet from any marsh vegetation, certainly an unusual place for any rail.

Harold M. Holland contributes the following notes:

Since 1918 I have not been in the marshes around Los Angeles, but understand the rails have decreased and become rather scarce. On the other hand, having collected near San Diego last year (1922), it was my impression that the lightrooted rails, in favorable places thereabout, were not especially uncommon. It is recalled there were a few marshy tracts in which cattle had been turned loose, and it was quite noticeable that no rails were therein encountered, although just across a narrow ditch, serving as a barrier to the cattle, they might be found. Occasionally one met with distinct runways from one ditch or channel to another, or a runway, often of surprising length and clearly defined, extending from a diteh to a clump of particularly thick or high salicornia in which would be hidden the nest. I think in some instances the same clump of salicornia is used season after season, and the worn appearance of the runways would bear this out. Across the marsh on the way from Los Angeles to Seal Beach, ijear the latter place, there was an electric line, and the heavy growths of salicornia at the bases of the trolley poles were favorite nest locations from year to year. Then there would be a little pool, almost round, encircled by a somewhat prominent growth of salicornia, and in this from one season to another a rail nest could be counted upon at almost the same identical spot. Often the fresh runways could easily be distinguished and would be mud spattered for a short distance near the ditch. The light-footed rail likes the salicornia in which to hide its nest and doubtless generally uses it, but at times does nest in other marsh vegetation.

George Willett (1906) found a nest of this species in a bunch of reeds growing in about three inches of fresh water, on the edge of Nigger Slough, near Los Angeles, on May 29, 1906.

The nest and eggs, which are now in my collection, are typical of the species. The nest is a very loose affair, the foundation being composed of decayed tules and reeds and the upper part, containing the cavity, of broken bits of tule stalks. It measures 11 by 7 inches on the outside, with the cavity ~ by ~ inches.

A. J. van Rossem writes me that he once: Found a nearly completed nest, from which the bird was flushed, in a clump of spear grass (&irptss). Because of the dense growth of the stems, the nest was about 18 inches from the ground. This is the only occasion which has come to notice where the nest was off the ground.

Eggs: The eggs of the light-footed rail are practically indistinguishable from those of the California clapper rail. The measurements of 40 eggs average 44.6 by 31 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 49.1 by 31, 44.9 by 32.3, 41.~ by 30.9, 48 by 29.7 millimeters.

Young: A. M. Ingersoll has sent me the following notes:

Both sexes incubate. I have seen young when alarmed by my presence seek concealment by placing their heads in crab holes and cavities on a rather steep mud bank, also under pieces of driftwood and other rubbish. Young light-footed rails are able to swim on the day of birth. On one occasion an old rail with swaying head and quivering wings stood some 25 feet from me, and about the same distance from a nest with six babies, facing me; a few rapid notes were uttered, evidently family instructions, for the young scrambled from their nest and five of them slowly made their way over several yards of oozy mud, across water of a tide stream and up the bank to a patch of weeds. The anxious parent did not take wing or apparently cease to look at me until the five young were safely concealed. One frail baby only got a few inches away from the nest; and two of the swimmers were so exhausted that the tidal current carried them some distance away from their companions.

Plumages: The molts and plumages of the light-footed rail are apparently similar to those of the California clapper rail, to which it is closely related.

Behavior: I also have the following interesting notes from J. Eugene Law:

The secretiveness of this species renders it hard to find but when the annual highest tides come it is literally floated up out of its cover and becomes conspicuous. I collected specimens on such a tide on December 7, 1915. When I arrived the water was already over most of the salicornia leaving only thin patches of cover. Perhaps 50 or more light: footed rails were seen in the course of two hours. As I rowed about they swam frantically toward such cover as was in sight, and would “freeze” along side any projecting grass or weed, but their bodies silhouetted conspicuously on the glassy water. They swam with awkward chickenlike movements of the head, forward and back, and when pressed too hard rose into the air and flew some distance before dropping heavily into the water. As this rarely happened until the boat was within gun range, they were at the mercy of the gunner. They could not swim so fast quite as I could row a small flat bottomed skiff.

The clear water only a foot or so deep over the salicornia afforded a splendid opportunity to observe two which were wing-tipped, and which dove when pressed too closely. They went straight down, poking their head into the salicornia where they apparently held on by means of their beaks, for their bodies were in plain sight with legs and feet sticking up. Here they invariably stayed until unconscious, when their hold would relax and they would come to the surface feet first, to lie for a moment before regaining consciousness. One of them got partly under a weed in one of its dives, and its toes became entangled so that it stuck there, and I believe would have drowned. When I thought it was drowned I retrieved it, leaving it on the surface of the water, beak partly submerged, but it gradually regained its faculties and soon started swimming off again at full speed.

W. Leon Dawson (1923) describes the vocal performances of this species as follows:

Eventide, also, is the time for that discursive song which won for our hero the name “clapper.” In a populous marsh one may hear six or seven birds at once uttering these peculiar, strident,. iterative calls. The tones are very hard to characterize. Some one, I suppose, must have likened them to the sound of a fence board struck by a stick. To me they sound more like the cheep of a baby blackbird greatly exaggerated. With head and neck stretched vertically, the bird delights to roll out 10 or a dozen of these notes in a series, raUentando sostentuto or rallentando et diminuendo, as the case may be.

Enemies: A. B. Howell, who has had considerable experience with these rails, writes to me:

They used to be common on our marshes, and during the unusually high December tides, we would collect as many as we wished, rowing about over the submerged flats and flushing the rails from almost every little grassy clump, in the cover of which they would be paddling about. They were thus hunted by local pothunters as well, until now they are decidedly rare where they were abundant half a dozen years ago. They are certainly less well protected, and much less numerous, than the northern bird about San Francisco Bay. In addition, their range is being restricted by reclamation of the marshes, and the future of the subspecies is not at all bright.

Range: A nonmigratory species, occuring in the coastal marshes of southern California and the northern part of the Western coast of Lower California.

In California the light-footed rail is found north to Santa Barbara and south along the coast to Wilmington, San Pedro Bay, Long Beach, Newport and San Diego. There is one record of a set of eggs taken in the fresh water marsh of Nigger Slough, Los Angeles County (Willett, 1906). In Lower California the species has been observed or taken principally in the region of San Quintin Bay.

Egg dates: California: 56 records, March 18 to June 11; 28 records, April 9 to May 3.


To Donald R. Dickey (1923) belongs the honor of discovering and the privilege of naming a new rail from a new and unexpected locality. He writes that:

Field work carried on during the spring of 1921 in the Colorado River Valley, Imperial County, California, by Laurence M. Huey and Mrs. May Canfield, lxi behalf of the author’s collection, resulted in the utterly unexpected capture of three individuals of a distinct new species of clapper rail.

For the characters on which the species is based he gives the following:

Nearest in appearance to certain examples of Rallus levipes, but instantly separable from typical Levi pes by duller and more olivaceous outer superior wingcoverts and alula, by paler coloration of underparts and more slender tarsus and bill.

The characters are rather slight on which to base a species, espe cially when he admits that his: Own examination of 29 specimens of Levi ~68 has disclosed two individuals from National City, San Diego County, California, which superficially seem to bridge the gap between these species both in measurements and in general coloration. however, the outer superior wing-coverts and alula, even in these unusual specimens, are distinctly brighter than the same areaa in the three specimens of yumafleflsis examined.

It would seem as if a subspecific designation might have been wiser, in view of the small series examined and our very limited knowlege of its distribution. He is justified in saying, however, that “it is interesting to note that we here have a true clapper rail inhabiting for the first recorded instance a purely fresh-water environinent.” Eggs: Laurence M. Hucy has sent me, for description in this work, the only known egg of this rail, which was kindly loaned for this purpose by Mrs. May Canfield. It was taken from the oviduct of a bird, collected on May 27, 1921, by a boy named Edward Heiser, and presented to Mrs. Canfield. The parent is one of the series on which Mr. Dickey’s description was based. The egg resembles certain eggs of Rail us Zevipes in a general way. It is ovate in shape, rounded at the small end; the shell is smooth and rather glossy. The ground color is between “pale pinkish buff” and “cartridge buff”; it is sparingly spotted, chiefly around the larger end, with underlying drab spots, varying in color from “vinaceous drab” to very “pale ecru drab,” and a few small spots and dots of dark browns, “chestnut brown” and “chocolate.” It measures 41.8 by 28.8 millimeters.

Behavior: Mr. Hucy has sent me a little additional information, as follows:

On May 18, 1924, Mrs. May Canfield and I were collecting about a mile north of Potholes, Imperial County, California, when suddenly the clacking of clapper rails was heard in three different directions. At the time the Colorado River was commencing to overflow its banks in the annual spring flood, and many low places were filling from the river and muddy streams were flowing through the willow bottom in many directions. It was along these streams that the rails were clacking. I pursued a pair of clacking birds whose voices seemed to issue from a large pond nearby, while Mrs. Canfleld followed another pair nearer the river. I never again heard my pair of birds, nor did I see them, but Mrs. Canfield had the good fortune of getting within 20 feet of her pair. Both were swimming in the running water at the time, and appeared by their actions, to be getting in line. As she has but a single-shot collecting gun, the thought struck her that possibly both rails could be obtained at the same shot. Unfortunately the rails observed her before the time to shoot occured, and she got neither.

In regard to the voices of these birds: I had, but a few weeks before, been on the rail marshes in the vicinity of San Diego Bay and had heard RaUu8 levipes clacking. I was therefore quite surprised at the thinner, higher note of the voice of Rallus i,umanensis, which is pitched at least three notes higher. However, it descends the scale as do the voices of other clapper rails of my acquaintance.

It is my opinion that the center of abundance of this rail is in the delta of the Colorado River, but that, during the flood time, which usually occurs in May and June of each year, the lower reaches of the river are made uninhabitable for the nesting of this bird and they annually come up the river seeking suitable localities in which to nest. It so happened in 1921 that the water was unusually high and hence the rails that formed the type series, now in the Dickey collection, were obtained unusually far up the river. Again, in 1924, the river was above normal, and rails were observed in the marshes above Potholes. It appears that these birds only come as far from the delta each summer as suitable nesting grounds are to be found. Hence their occurrence at these northern stations during periods of excessively high water. This phenomenon might well be responsible for the bird’s extending its range into the vast tule marshes now growing in Imperial Valley, California, though as yet no definite records of this species have been forthcoming from that region.

Range: ” So far as known, the fresh water riparian strip along the Colorado River above Yuma, and adjacent irrigation canals in the vicinity of Laguna Dam” (Dickey 1923).


In the salt water marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, from southern New England to Texas, the clapper rail, in its various forms, has been a widely distributed,well known, and conspicuous feature, though more often heard than seen; its loud clatter is still often heard in many places, but its popularity as a game bird and as an egg producer has greatly thinned its ranks; it no longer exists anywhere in anything like the astonishing abundance described by the earlier writers. Audubon (1840) boasted of having collected as many as 72 dozen eggs in one day. He says further:

In the Jerseys, it forms almost a regular occupation to collect the eggs of this bird, and there I have seen 20 or more persons gathering them by thousands during the season; in fact, it is not an uncommon occurrence for an egger to carry home 100 dozen in a day; and when this havoc is continued upwards of a month, you may imagine its extent. The abundance of the birds themselves is almost beyond belief; but if you suppose a series of salt marshes 20 miles in length and a mile in breadth, while at every 8 or 10 steps one or two birds may be met with, you may calculate their probable number.

Nesting: Clap per rails were still common on the coast of Virginia when I was there in 1907, though in nothing like their former abundance. On Cobb and Wreck Islands, and on other large islands along the coast, the outer shore line is protected by long, high beaches of broken shells and sand and by great piles of oyster shells thrown up by the surf; behind these barriers are extensive tracts of low, flat, salt marshes and meadows, intersected by numerous, winding tidal creeks. At low tide broad mud flats are exposed to view in the estuaries and along the creeks, where the rails find suitable feeding grounds. At ordinary high tides the marshes and meadows are more or less covered with water; and at spring tides they are flooded, so that only a few of the highest spots are above water and only the tops of the grasses are visible in the low places.

During the few days that we spent in these marshes, from June 24 to 28, we found a large number of nests of the clapper rail, which must have been second layings, for it was late in the season for them and yet most of them were not heavily incubated. Perhaps the spring tides had destroyed many of the first layings. Practically all of the nests that we found were on the higher and drier portions of the marshes, which are only partially covered at high tide with a few inches of water. The nests were mostly built in the little clumps of coarse, green, marsh grass, which was then about 18 or 24 inches high, growing principally along the banks of the creeks in the soft, wet mud. They varied in height, above the mud, from 8 to 12 inches and were evidently intended to be high enough to escape the ordinary high tides; but they were not all high enough to avoid the high course of spring tides. The nests were usually more or less arched over, with pretty little canopies of green grass interlaced above, through which the eggs could be plainly seen, making a very pretty picture; these little canopies were often conspicuous at a long distance, making it easy to locate the nests. But in many cases the nests were entirely open and uncovered, in plain sight in the shorter grass. The nests were well made of dry sedges and grasses, and were lined with finer and shorter pieces of the same material; they were usually well cupped and measured from 7 to 10 inches in outside and from 5 to 6 inches in inside diameter. Many of the nests had welldefined runways leading to them and some were provided with pathways or stairways, made of dry grasses, leading up to them. One nest was concealed almost perfectly under a bunch of drift seaweed, which had lodged on top of a thick clump of coarse, green grass; there was an entrance left open on one side which was the only point from which the eggs were visible.. Another nest was hidden similarly under a bunch of drifted dead sedges. One nest was found in a colony of Forster terns, within 3 feet of a tern’s nest.

Eggs: The clapper rail lays from 6 to 14 eggs, but the usual numbers run from 9 to 12. The shape is ovate and the shell is smooth and more or less glossy. The ground color varies from warm, yellowish buff to pale, greenish buff, or from dull, “cream buff” or “pinkish buff” to “ivory yellow” or “pale olive buff.” The eggs are irregularly marked with small blotches and spots of various shades of browns and drabs. Some eggs are richly colored with bold markings, others are finely speckled and some are very sparingly spotted. They average darker in color and are usually more heavily marked than the eggs of the king rail. The measurements of 50 eggs average 42.5 by 30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48.5 by 31, 44 by 31.5, 37.5 by 28, and 41 by 27,5 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be 14 days and it is probably performed by both sexes. The young are precocial and leave the nest soon after they are hatched, to follow their mother through the marshes and learn to procure their own food. Under her guidance they soon learn to swim and to run and hide in the great jungle of marsh grass, where they are comparatively safe from most of their enemies.

Plumages: The downy young clapper rail is wholly covered with soft, thick, jet black down, glossy above and dull black below. The juvenal plumage appears first on the sides of the breast, where it is “mouse gray” or “pale mouse gray” in color; whitish feathers then invade the ventral region, a central strip of black down being the last to disappear from the breast; the back then becomes feathered with “hair brown” and “mouse gray” plumage; the young bird is fully hail grown before the head becomes feathered or the wings start to grow; the latter are not fully grown until the young bird is completely feathered and has reached its full size.

In the full juvenal plumage some of the races can be recognized by their characteristic colorings. In crepitans, from Virginia, the upper parts are mainly olive drab with broad edgings of “Quaker drab”; the under parts are mostly dull whitish, washed with pale buff on the neck and variegated with “pale Quaker drab” on the sides. In seotti from Florida, the upper parts are much darker, nearly black with “clove brown” edgings; the sides of the head and flanks are lighter “clove brown; and the throat and under parts are huffy white with dusky tipped feathers. In saturatus, from Texas, the juvenal plumage is darker and more richly colored than in crepitans, but not nearly so dark as in scotti.

The juvenal plumage is short lived, for almost as soon as it is cornpelted a molt of the contour plumage begins to produce the first winter plumage, which is practically indistinguishable from that of the adult, the barred flanks are acquired in September and the change is completed in October.

Adults have a complete poatnuptial molt in August and September, the wings being renewed first and the body plumage last; they apparently have a partial prenuptial molt of the contour plumage in early spring.

Food: Audubon (1840) writes:

During ebb, the clapper rail advances toward the edge of the waters as they recede, and searches, either among the grasses, or along the deep furrows made by the ebb and flow of the tides, for its food, which consists principally of small crabs, a species of salt-water snail attached to the rushes, the fry of fishes, aquatic insects, and plants. When the tide flows they gradually return, and at high water they resort to the banks, where they remain concealed until the waters begin to retreat. This species is by no means exclusively nocturnal, for it moves about in search of food during the whole of the day, in this respect resembling the gallinules.

Behavior: The same gifted author, who evidently studied the habits of this rail quite thoroughly, describes its various activities very satisfactorily, as follows:

The salt-water marsh hen swims with considerable ease, though not swiftly or gracefully. While in this act, it extends its neck forward, and strikes the water with its feet, as if unwilling to move far at a time, the motion of its neck resembling that of the gailinules. It dives well, remains a considerable time under water, and in this manner dexterously eludes its pursuers, although it certainly does not possess the power of holding fast to the bottom, as some persons have alleged. When hard pressed, it often sinks just below the surface, keeping the bill above in order to breathe, and in this position, if not detected, remains for a considerable time. If perceived and approached, it instantly dives, and uses its wings to accelerate its progress, but rises as soon as it comes to a place of safety.

Their movements on the ground, or over the partially submersed or floating beds of weeds, are extremely rapid, and they run swiftly off before a dog, the utmost exertions of which are required to force them on wing. Such an attempt by man would prove utterly futile, unless he were to come upon them unawares. When not pursued, and feeling secure, they jerk the tail upwards, although by no means so frequently as galilnules are wont to do. On the least appearance of danger, they lower the head, stretch out the neck, and move off with incomparable speed, always in perfect silence. They have thousands of paths among the rank herbage, crossing each other so often that they can very easily escape pursnit; and, besides, they have a power of compressing their body to such a degree as frequently to force a passage between two stems so close that one could hardly belleve it possible for them to squeeze themselves through. When put up, they fly slowly and generally straight before you, with their legs dangling, so that they are very easily shot by a quick sportsman, as they rarely fly far at a time on such occasions, but prefer pitching down again into the first tuft of rank grass in their way. When on their migrations, however, they pass low and swiftly over the marshes, or the water, stretched to their full extent, and with a constant beat of the wings.

From about the beginning of March to that of April, the salt marshes resound with the cries of the clapper rail, which resembles the syllables “cac, cac, cac, car, ce, caha, caha.” The commencement of the cry, which is heard quite as frequently during day as by night, is extremely loud and rapid, its termination lower and protracted. At the report of a gun, when thousands of these birds instantaneously burst forth with their cries, you may imagine what an uproar they make. This bird seems to possess the power of ventriloquism, for, when several hundred yards off, its voice often seems to be issuing from the grass around you.

Game: The clapper rail has long been pursued as a game bird and countless thousands have been shot by, so-called, sportsmen. But it seems to possess few of the qualities of a good game bird. Its flight is slow, weak and direct and it is so tame that it usually rises at close range; it is consequently one of the easiest of birds to shoot. When the marshes are covered with water, at high tides, the rails gather in large numbers in the few available high spots where there is grass enough above water to conceal them; it is then a simple matter to pole a boat up to one of such spots and pot them, as they fly slowly away in the open. The flesh of this rail will not compare in flavor with that of the sora, especially when the latter has been fattened on wild rice; it is said to be insipid and sedgy, but is undoubtedly tender and fairly palatable, as is the flesh of most birds, particularly young birds. Audubon (1840) has given us a graphic account of clapper rail shooting, as follows:

About Charleston, in South Carolina, the shooting of marsh hens takes place from September to February, a few days in each month during the springtides. A light skiff or canoe is procured, the latter being much preferable, and paddled by one or two experienced persons, the sportsman standing in the bow, and his friend, if he has one with him, taking his station in the stern. At an early hour they proceed to the marshes, amid many boats containing parties on the same errand. There is no lack of shooting grounds, for every creek of salt water swarms with marsh hens. The sportsman who leads has already discharged his barrels, and on either side of his canoe a bird has fallen. As the boat moves swiftly towards them, more are raised, and although he may not be ready, the safety of the bird is in imminent jeopardy, for now from another bark double reports are heard in succession. The tide is advancing apace, the boats merely float along, and the birds, driven from place to place, seek in vain for safety. Here, on a floating mass of tangled weeds, stand a small group side by side. The gunner has marked them, and presently nearly the whole covey is prostrated. Now, onward to that great bunch ~of tall grass all the boats are seen to steer; shot after shot flies in rapid succession; dead and dying lie all around on the water; the terrified survivors are trying to save their lives by hurried flight; but their efforts are unavailing: one by one they fall, to rise no more. It is a sorrowful sight after all; see that poor thing gasping hard in the agonies of death, its legs quivering with convulsive twitches, its bright eyes fading into glazed obscurity. In a few hours, hundreds have ceased to breathe the breath of life; hundreds that erstwhile revelled in the joys of careless existence, but which can never behold their beloved marshes again. The cruel sportsman, sovered with mud and mire, drenched to the skin by the splashing of the paddles, his face and hands besmeared with powder, stands amid the wreck which he has made, exultingly surveys his slaughtered heaps, and with joyous feelings returns home with a cargo of game more than enough for a family thrice as numerous as his own.

Enemies: The gentle rail has many enemies which Audubon (1840) refers to, as follows:

Their courage is now and then brought to the test by the sudden approach of some of their winged enemies, such as a hawk or an owl, especially the marsh hawk, which is often attacked by them while sailing low over the grass in which they arc commonly concealed. On such occasions, the rail rises a few yards in the air, strikes at the marauder with bill and claws, screaming aloud all the while, and dives again among the grass, to the astonishment of the bird of prey, which usually moves off at full speed. They are not so fortunate in their encounters with such hawks as pounce from on high on their prey, such as the red-tailed ann red-shouldered hawks, against which they have no chance of defending themselves. Minks, racoons, and wild cats destroy a great number of them during the night, and many are devoured by turtles and ravenous fishes; but their worst enemy is man. My friend Bachman has shot so many as 00 in the course of four hours, and others have killed double that number in double the time.

Wilson (1832) adds:

These birds are also subject to another calamity of a more extensive kind: After the greater part of the eggs are laid, there sometimes happen violent northeast tempests that drive a great sea into the bay, covering the whole marshes; so that at such times the rail may be seen in hundreds, floating over the marsh in great distress; many escape to the mainland; and vast numbers perish. On an occasion of this kind I have seen, at one view, thousands in a single meadow, walking about exposed and bewildered, while the dead bodies of the females, who had perished on or near their nests, were strewed along the shorc. This last circumstance proves how strong the ties of maternal affection are in these birds; for of the great numbers which I picked up and opened, not one male was to be found among them; all were females. Such as had not yet begun to sit probably escaped. These disasters do not prevent the survivors from recommeneing the work of laying and building anew; and instances have occurred where their eggs have been twice destroyed by the sea; and yet in two weeks the eggs and nests seemed as numerous as ever.

Range: S alt niarshes of the Atlantic coast from southeastern Maine to northeastern North Carolina.

Breeding range: The clapper rail breeds north to Connecticut. (Saybrook) and south to North Carolina (Pea and Brodie Islands). The east and west limits of its range are, of course, determined by the width of the salt-marsh belt.

Winter range: North, casualh’, to New York (Far Rockaway, L. I.) and south to Georgia (Savannah and St. Marys). The species has also occurred in winter in Connecticut (Stamford, February 9, 1900).

Casual records: Specimens have been taken or observed in Massachusetts (East Orleans, Springfield, Ipswich, Kingston, Boston, and Plymouth); New Hampshire (Portsmouth); and Maine (Popham Beach and Sabattus Pond).

Egg dates: Virginia: 46 records, April 16 to July 17; 23 records, May 27 to July 3. New Jersey and Long Island: 21 records, May 24 to June 21; 11 records1 May30 to June 5.


A somewhat more richly colored race of the clapper rail inhabits the Gulf coast regions from Alabama westward to Corpus Christi, Texas. It does not differ materially in its habits from the Atlantic coast races, except that in some places in Texas it is found quite far inland in brackish swamps. We found this rail common on the low marshy islands and mud lumps off the coast of Louisiana near the delta of the Mississippi, where it was doubtless breeding in the long salt-marsh grass. The coast of Texas, from Bolivar Peninsula, which separates part of Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, to Neuces Bay at Corpus Christi, is lined with salt marshes and brackish meadows, which often extend many miles up the rivers. Many of the islands are low and marshy, covered with long grass. And scattered all over the broad, coastal strip are numerous sloughs and marshy ponds, overgrown or bordered with rank growths of marsh grass and sedges. Throughout all of this region, which we explored more or less hurriedly, we found the Louisiana clapper rail living under ideal conditions. These marshes are so extensive that it is a hopeless task to attempt to explore them thoroughly; the rails did not seem to be particularly abundant anywhere, so we made only spasmodic efforts to hunt for nests in a few places and did not succeed in finding any.

My companion on the Texas trip, George Finlay Simmons, has made quite an extensive study of the history and habits of this rail in Texas and has published two interesting papers (1914 and 1915) on the subject. The following passages, taken from his first p ~per (1914) will give a good idea of the haunts of this bird:

From the timber of the Brazos River bottoms northward and eastward along the coast is the low, nearly level coast prairie of Texas. The only vegetation of this prairie is the tall grass, usually burned brown by the hot summer sun an t killed by the cold “northers” which sweep over Texas in winter; here and there a huisache (Vechelliafarnesiane) and an occasional “motte” of three or four scrubby oaks serve to break the monotony. A few slowly winding bayous cross this plain, but the water in them rarely ever flows; these bayous are generally skirted by timber, but many of them contain marshy spots overgrown with tall grass, reeds, and sedge. At the mouths of these bayous the country is usually so flat and low that the water spreads over a considerable area, forming innui aerable marshy flats and salt-water marshes, where tall grass, reeds and sedge grow in abundance. In winter large numbers of ducks and other waterfowls attrnct the hunter, but in summer these marshes are abandoned to the rails, mottled ducks and herons. Farther inland from the coast, throughout this strip of coast prairie, are numbers of shallow ponds overgrown with reeds and sedge, and spots where tall grass and reeds grow over several inches of water.

My favorite spot for the Loulsana clapper rail is a small red-wing blackbird colony about 6 miles south of the courthouse in Houston, being a mere damp spot on the prairie covering about two acres, and overgrown with tall grass and sedge. Two small clumps of persimmon trees grow in this marsh, one at either end. Though fully 22 miles from Galveston Bay and 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this salt marsh might be termed a typical salt marsh, for here nested a pair of Texas seaside sparrows, and not a mile off to the south a nest of the mottled duck with 11 eggs was found in another such marsh.

Nesting: Mr. Simmons (1914) gives more or less detailed accounts of a number of nests of the Louisiana clapper rail, found by him and by E. F. Pope, from which it appears that its nesting habits do not differ materially from those of its eastern relatives, except that the nests seem to be more widely scattered. His notes on one nest are well worth quoting, as follows:

On my way home I stopped at the red-wing colony again to try to get a look at the rail on the nest. Slowly I drew nearer and nearer to the nest, but I could not tell whether there was a bird on it or not, so still did she sit and so perfectly did she blend into the background that I was unable to see her until I was within about three feet of the nest.

Sitting on one heel while using the opposite knee as an improvised table, I checked down a few descriptive notes and sketches in my note book, although I feared she would leave the nest while I was doing so. However, she did not, but remained on the nest eyeing me askant, her slightly curved bill nearly sidewise to me. Dropping my note book and other paraphernalia, I arose until I was half over the bird on the nest; I could easily have caught her and might have stroked her as she sat on the nest, had I not been so slow. But as I remained in that position for sevenil minutes without moving, she began to get nervous, and while I stood there watching her she stepped off the nest into a well-defined little runway or path leading away from it. So slowly did she go and such time did she take to lift her feet at each step that I could have counted a second or two between each stride. About 12 feet away she stopped and half turned to watch me as I examined the nest and eggs.

The nest was ~ inches across the top from rim to rim; the cavity was inches deep, being a gradual slope from rim to rim, with the reeds firmly and smoothly packed inside. For the most part the nest was composed of reeds and fragments of reeds or marsh grass from 1 inch to over a foot in length; a few were somewhat longer, being the standard blades of grass which had been bent flat against the ground and folded back again. The lining was of small fragments of the same huffy, broad-bladed marsh grass, and packed fiat against the body of the nest.

Eggs: The eggs of the Louisiana clapper rail are not distinguishable from those of the other subspecies. The measurements of 40 eggs average 42 by 29.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 46 by 30, 41.2 by 31.6, 39.5 by 28.5, and 40 by 28.4 millimeters.

Food: Mr. Simmons (1914) says that the food of these rails “consists of small crabs, slugs, snails, aquatic insects, grasshoppers, and occasionally a few seeds.” He quotes some interesting notes made by Mr. Pope, as follows:

At one point I squatted on my heels and remained stationary for a few moments and was rewarded by seeing a rail walk out of the grass into the mud and begin feeding, which it did by thrusting its bill into the soft mud and feeling around and stirring its food to the top, now and then securing a shrimp or a small minnow. I was advised by an old fisherman who lives on the bay shore about 3 miles from Flake, that he had often seen these birds feeding on young diamond-backed terrapin, which were once quite plentiful in this part of the bay and which deposited their eggs in the shell banks along the shore, the eggs hatching and the young taking to the adjacent marsh and bayous, probably to escape their numerous enemies in the bay. There they fell before the rails.

On warm days the “fiddler” or fighting crabs would crawl out of their holes around the old schooner and were eagerly devoured by the rails. After catching one of the crabs they would usually remove the large claw before swallowing the victim. This was often accomplished with the assistance of a neighbor who would hold the crab in his beak while the other wrenched off the objectionable limb; but this method was not always satisfactory to the bird that removed the claw, as the one that held the crab usually proceeded to bolt it while the other was left to hold the claw, or rather to drop it. On one occasion when the crabs were not plentiful, a rail found and tackled an unusually large “fiddler,” which it mauled around in the mud for some time without apparent effect. Suddenly, as if getting an idea, it left the crab and disappeared on the other side of the schooner, to return a moment later with a companion, the two soon disarming Mr. Crab. Now, I presume the same rall came back; they are so much alike it is impossible to tell one from the other under such conditions, but from the way the birds went straight to the spot where the crab was left, I did not doubt the bird in the lead being the one that found the crab. Which one got the crab I can not say, as after scuffling over him, they disappeared from my sight in the tall grass.

Behavior: I once saw a good demonstration of the swimming ability of this rail, while collecting off the coast of Louisiana; I flushed a rail from a small grassy island and was surprised to see the bird fly off and settle on the water about 100 yards offshore, where it swam about as unconcernedly as a duck.

Mr. Simmons (1914) makes the following observations on behavior:

Doubtless the reader will be suprised that the rail has ever been known to perch; indeed, I was more than surprised. On one occasion, in August, 1912, I was surprised to see a clapper rail flap up out of the marsh and light on a fiat-. topped post of the barbed wire fence, where it remained for some few minutes, standing there on the small fiat surface as unconcerned as if on its marshy home ground.

The voice of the clapper rail is peculiar indeed, its loud, harsh cackling resembling that of a Guinea fowl or the sound produced by some automatic toys. This harsh cackling might be likened to the sound of: “chcclc-check-chcck-chcdcehcck-chaek-chcck-chack,” rapidly repeated. This call is usually heard about the break of day and again about dusk; sometimes, however, it is heard during the daytime or at night, though rarely. On Bolivar Peninsula Mr. Pope says that he could always tell when a “norther” was due by the clatter of the rails, as they invariably heralded its approach several hours before its arrival.

During the mating season in March, at which time they congregate in small flocks, Mr. Pope says that the birds became very noisy, especially late in the afternoon and about dusk. At the start of the nesting season, however, they quieted down. While I was examining nest No. 2 the parent bird now and then uttered a note which resembled the “keck” of the red-winged blackbird. At times during the early part of the breeding season I have stopped to watch adult rails which appeared very ill at ease. The note uttered under these conditions is a hoarse grunting noise sounding like “bruck” or “gruel.” The newly hatched young have a constant, but very faint twitter, and a note reminding me, as stated before, of the “cheap” of a tiny domestic chick.

Enemies: Evidently the clapper rails of Texas are disappearing, owing to the same causes as prevail elsewhere, for Mr. Simmons (1914) writes:

Once common, the birds are rapidly becoming scarce. If protection is not afforded them at once they will soon be wiped out entirely. Hunters kill numbers of them during the hunting season. In fact, it is one of the easiest of the water birds to secure on the wing, and therefore is one of the first to be shot by the amateur marksman. Mr. Pope observed that numbers of them fell victims to steel traps which he had set in the pathways of the mink in the marshes near Flake. These rails caught in the traps were usually devoured by mink if caught in the night, and most of those caught were taken then. The majority of the nests located by Mr. Pope in the Bolivar marshes in 1912 were usually found destroyed before the sets of eggs were complete, probably by mink, raccoon, or opossum, as tracks of these animals were in evidence in the immediate vicinity of the several nests. The eggs remaining in the nests or on the ground nearby had the appearance of having been sucked.

Probably the greatest factor the rails have to contend with in their fight for existeoce is the flooding of the marshes, both from high tide and from heavy rains. At such times the birds are much exposed and bewildered and many drown. In the seaside marshes they build their nests on the banks of the sloughs or bayous instead of the higher parts of the marsh, and in rainy spells numbers of nests are destroyed. They are naturally very delicate birds and sensitive to the cold of the more severe winters; many freeze to death where they are unable to secure shelter. During November and December 1913 Texas was visited by one of the most destructive floods of its history, two of the largest rivers of the State rising and overflowing miles and miles of the lowlands towards the coast. During that time numbers of the rails left the marshes and took to higher ground until the waters receded. One of these birds was caught in a bewildered condition in Mr. Parley’s yard in Port Aransas in October.

Winter: Of the winter habits of these rails, he says:

In the colder weather they haunt drifts of logs or trash in the marshes, where they take shelter from the cold north wind and from rains. But as the thermometer rarely falls below freezing in this semitropical coast country, the birds are rarely forced to seek shelter, and their actions and habits then are not noticeably different from other times of the year. In winter in the marshes on Bolivar Poninsula Mr. Pope says that the birds were fully as common in winter as in summer, if not more so. In traveling through the grass the birds had well-beaten paths about 6 inches wide, and from the way these paths were beaten out in the vicinity of the bayous, it would appear that the birds were much more common.

Range: The Louisiana clapper rail is confined to the salt marshes of the Gulf coast extending east to Alabama (Perdido Bay) and probably western Florida (Pensacola); and west through Mississippi (Biloxi); Louisiana (New Orleans, Grand Island, and Vermilion Bay); and Texas (Galveston, Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville). So far as is known it is nonnugratory.

Egg dates: Mississippi to Texas: 15 records, April 13 to June 28; 8 records, April 30 to June 8.


This is the dark colored race of the clapper rail which is found on the Gulf coast of Florida, from Charlotte Harbor to the mouth of the Suwanee River and perhaps beyond both points, where it seems to be confined to the salt-water marshes, particularly about the mouths of rivers. At the mouth of the Suwanec River, Messrs. Brewster and Chapman (1891) found these rails to be “the most common and characteristic birds”; they say of their haunts:

The marshes and small islands at the mouth of the river were covered with a tall grass, each blade of which ended in a very sharp point or spine. Beneath the upright grass there was a mat of dead grass representing probably the growth of previous years. This formed a dense mass: a foot or more in thickness: and raised 15 or 20 inches above the ground. Beneath this mat the rails had their runways from which it was almost impossible to dislodge them. At intervals of 15 or 20 minutes one would call out when another would answer, and then still another, until the call was taken up by dozens of birds in succession. We did not observe that these outcries were at all stimulated or excited by any sudden noise, such as the report of a gun, as in the case with the Carolina rail. After a vain attempt to flush these birds by wading in the marshes, we were obliged to resort to firing the islands in order to obtain specimens.

Dr. Louis B. Bishop (1904) describes a similar haunt, as follows:

At the mouth of the Anclote River stretehes a wide marsh overgrown with a cylindrical, sharp-pointed rush, stiff and sharp enough to bring blood after passing through several thicknesses of cloth. As these rushes die and bend over new ones take their place, resulting in a breast-high tangle through which it is difficult to force one’s way, and even dangerous on account of one inhabitant of this marsh with which I became acquainted. Channels of varying width intersect the reeds, becoming at low water small stretehes of sand flat. This is the home of Scott’s rail, and he clings closely to it, not flying unless driven to cross some narrow opening, and then burying himself rapidly in the tangle beyond. Even these open spaces he prefers, under ordinary circumstances, to cross by running.

Courtship: W. E. D. Scott (1889) says:

They begin to mate in February, and the breeding season is at its height by the 1st of April. During the mating season the male birds are very pugnacious and resent any intrusions from others of the species. At such times I have seen them have pitched battles, and finally, one giving in and taking to flight, the victor would pursue the vanquished on the wing for several hundred feet and then return to the neighborhood of the particular tuft of grass that sheltered the nest. At such times, on alighting, the peculiar rattling notes so characteristic of the bird are indulged in with more than ordinary vigor.

C. J. Pennock has sent me the following notes on the courtship of this rail:

Regarding the mating of Scott’s rail, I have found these birds at St. Marks and also about Punta Qorda quite silent throughout the winter season. Only when considerably alarmed, at that period will they utter more than a hasty alarm. As nesting time approaches or by early March, they may be heard even with little or no cause, so far as thc observer can determine. When mating is at the flood, one and not rarely two birds may be seen making short flights above the tops of the reeds. Only once did I hear one of these flying birds call out, and then two birds were in close company. On April 16, 1923, as I stood in a much-traveled roadway bordered on either side by a tidal ditch and small marshes and but 75 yards from the bay shore, what proved to be two males and a female Scott’s rail came in sight. One and then quickly a second bird crossed the roadway and disappeared into a small clump of scrub palmettos. The smaller, the female, promptly came out onto the open sand near the ditch, walking slowly and frequently stopping, the characteristic jerking of body and tail much exaggerated; two other birds now appeared near the palmettos and for two or three minutes they were in full chase in and out of different small covers. When this encounter ceased, with the running off of one bird, the other came toward the yet visible female and approached her by short runs, with turns and gestures of body and wings, at times half open; the female meanwhile moved slowly toward a small patch of reeds, and finally dropped with body quite flat and head stretched well forward, but not quite to the ground, when the male came to her and the mating was complete.

Nesting: Doctor Bishop (1904) describes a nest of this rail, as follows:

Although I looked for nests of Scott’s rail on each trip that we made to this and other marshes, as it was evident they were laying, it was not until March31 that I found my first and only nest. This was on a small mangrove island in the Anclote River near its mouth. Surrounding the mangroves was a narrow belt of the same rushes that composed the marsh, and the nest was situated on the ground in the rushes about 10 feet from shore, where they jutted into the mangroves, one of which shaded the nest. The nest was a mass about 1 foot in height composed of small pieces of dead rushes carelessly piled together, lined with fragments of the same, and only slightly hollowed. There were seven eggs in the nest and the same number on April 2, when I collected them, so, although fresh, they were doubtless a full set. On neither occasion did I see or hear the parent, but there can he little doubt of the identification, as Scott’s is the only large rail I found near Anclote.

Eggs: Except for the fact that they average slightly smaller, the eggs of this rail are not distinguishable from the eggs of the other eastern clappex rails. The measurements of 13 eggs average 40.4 by 29.9; the eggs showing the four extremes measured 43.5 by 31.4; and 37 by 27.7 millimeters.

Behavior: Mr. Scott (1889) writes:

They are confined, so far as I am aware, to the salt-water marshes, and about rarpon Springs are abundant the year around. They do not appear to be as retiring in their habits as are their congeners, and are frequently to he seen feeding at low tide on the exposed banks of mud and sand. At such times they are very tame and unsuspicious, and may be approached within a few feet. If alarmed they run to the neighboring shelter of coarse grass of the salt water marsh bnt presently return to feed, even though the intruder remains close at hand. Now and then one or two may be seen swimming some narrow arm of the bayou, and several times I have found pairs at least 300 or 400 feet from shore, swimming about and apparently feeding on some small fish or crustacee.

N. B. Moore says in his notes:

I once measured the footprints of the clapper rail, made on a smooth and naked sand bar, over which it had passed at night. I found the interval between them for several steps to be 19 inches. It would be fair to suppose that these were impressed when the bird ran at its utmost speed. Even then this extent of reach is suprising when the shortness of the tarsus is called to mind, it being in the largest birds only 234 inches; besides, I do not think this species uses its wings in running, as some birds are known to do.

This length of stride is rather remarkable for so small a bird; Mr.

Moore found that the longest stride of asandhill crane measured 19~ inches and the average was about 15 inches; and the longest step he could find of the great blue heron was only 19h inches.

During the winter and spring of 1924 and 1925 we found these rails very common in all the numerous salt: water marshes that we visited on the Gulf coast of Florida from Tarpon Springs to Tampa Bay, living in the localities so well described above. They were more often heard than seen, but occasionally one would show itself on the open mud flats near the edge of the reeds, or, more rarely, one could be flushed from the dense tangles of sharp pointed reeds. I believe that they live, at certain seasons, among the red mangroves, where on several occasions I saw them feeding on the muddy shores of small ponds, far from any reedy marshes. I never succeeded in finding an occupied nest, though I spent considerable time in exploring suitable marshes.

Mr. Pennock writes to me:

Along the St. Marks River, for 7 miles up its length, to the confluence with Wakulla River, 1 ~ miles below the little village of St. Marks, such conditions of marsh, as are above described, do prevail and continue along the main stream close up to the fish houses. On both sides of these two rivers the open marshes maintain from one-half to over a mile in width, With numerous wide draining creeks which under ordinary weather conditions have wide, bare mud fiats on either shore at low tide. In such localities the “salt-water” rail can be observed most readily. The brooding bird, from late March until June or later, hurries aloz3g the border of the reeds or scurries out toward the water’s edge, pecking here and there for a tidbit or tarrying, long enough to probe successfully for a burrowing fiddler crab and then hustling along for further repast, all quite in the manner of a barnyard “setting hen.” Later the brood of sable chicks tag along behind the adult, their numbers usually lessening rapidly as days go by, from toll levied by their numerous predatory neighbors, which include fish crows, some of the smaller hawks, snakes, and turtles. While the old bird at this time is solicitous for her charge, she is not hurried in her actions. At other seasons of the year and under normal feral conditions the movements of the adult bird are stately, graceful, and attractive.

Range: Nonmigratory. The range of the Florida clapper rail extends from extreme southeastern Alabama (Perdido Bay), along the Gulf coast of Florida (St. Marks, mouth of the Suwanee River, Cedar Keys, Anclote Keys, Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor to near Fort Myers). It probably breeds throughout this range although the occurrence in Alabama is based upon a single specimen (Howell) and was possibly a wanderer.

Egg dates: Florida: 18 records, April 18 to July 30; 9 records, May 6 to 26.


The clapper rails of the Atlantic coast, from North Carolina to Florida, have been designated as a subspecies under the above name. This subspccies seems to be of doubtful value; the characters on which it is separated are a generally darker color, more ashy under parts and under tail-coverts with fewer markings; at best it seems to be only intermediate between crepitans and scotti; and if we are to recognize intermediate races in nomenclature there will be no end of splitting.

Dr. Louis B. Bishop (1904) describes the haunts of this rail, as follows:

With this bird I have become well acquainted at Pea Island on the coast of North Carolina. Pamlico Sound is separated from the Atlantic by a belt of drifting sand and mud flats, that broadens in places sufficiently to support trees and bushes, and narrows in others to but the ocean beach backed by a mile of sandy fiats, where may frequently, be seen in position the stumps of trees that grew there in past centuries. The sound side of this belt is bordered here and there by meadows of salt marsh, some of these quite similar to the wetter marshes of the New England coast, and covered like them with a coarse grass or sedge, while others are densely grown with rushes evidently closely related to those that compose the salt marshes of western Florida. These marshes are the home of Wayne’s rail, and at evening or in cloudy weather you will hear their harsh cackle, and occasionally see one of the birds walking along the margin of an inlet, ready to run quickly to the grass at the slightest sign of danger. In winter apparently the great majority go farther south, the true clapper rail occurring at this season in about equal numbers; but in May the marshes are filled with these birds and the clapper rail is rare.

C. J. Maynard (1896) writes: The coasts of South Carolina and Georgia are low, and many sounds make in to the land, which receive the contents of numerous rivers. Between these sounds, are islands, back of which are creeks of varying widths, in which the tide rises and falls; while between these bodies of water and the mainland, are extensive marshes, many miles in width. These level tracts are scarcely elevated above low water mark, consequently are overflowed by every flood tide, and during the extreme high water that occurs at the full of the moon even the grass tops of all but some of the more elevated spots are submerged. As remarked, these marshes are widely spread, extending from the islands to the westward, as far as eye can reach, and stretching from the extreme northern confines of the State of South Carolina, quite to Florida. Many aquatic birds find a home in this lonely reach of country, but by far the most abundant, at all seasons are the clapper rails, and their harsh voices may be heard at all hours of the day and night, as they skulk through the grass or run along the margins of the creeks in search of food. Like all the members of this genus, these rails are difficult to tart, and the only way in which they can be secured in numbers, is to watch the occurrence of a spring tide which, overflowing nearly everything, forces the birds to take refuge in the few clumps of grass left uncovered, or they will sit upon the floating d6bris and quietly await the falling of the water.

Nesting: The nesting habits of this subspecies do not differ materially from those of its more northern representative, as the following account by Doctor Bishop (1904) will illustrate:

Although I have taken incubated eggs by May 2, the greater number of rails do not begin to lay until about this date, and some postpone this duty until the latter half of the month. The nests are scattered everywhere over the marshes, the bases of some resting in the water, and of others on dry ground. In the rushes a spot is selected under a thick mass of semiprostrate stems; in the coarse marsh grass as thick a clump as possible is chosen, and the tips of the grass seem to he bent over as a canopy to the nest. This bending over of the tops of the grass is sometimes sufficiently evident to draw one’s attention to the spot. The nest is a slightly hollowed heap of small pieces of dead rush or grass stem.

Troup D. Perry writes to me that this rail does not always breed in wet places, as he has found it nesting in Beaufort County, South Carolina, on high, dry land, where the nest was a slight hollow in the ground, lined with bits of dry grass, and 30 or 40 feet from a creek. He once found a nest on the top of a sand dune 15 feet high and about 200 feet from any water; the nest was a slight hollow, lined with dry grass, among the lavender bushes that covered the sand dune.

Eggs: The eggs of this subspecies are indistinguishable from those of the other clapper rails. The measurements of 40 eggs average 41.5 by 29.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48.2 by 28.8, 41.3 by 30.6, 38.6 by 27.9, 37.8 by 27.8 millimeters.

Behavior: Dootor Bishop (1904) says of this bird; At all times Wayne’s rail is a shy and secretive bird, never flying if it can help it, but an adept at running, dodging and hiding, and can seldom be forced from the grass without the aid of a dog. Against the wind it can not fly, and even with the wind its progress is slow and seldom sustained for more than 100 yards. With a fresh breeze blowing I have seen a rail roll over and over when it attempted to alight on the hard sand.

Enemies: Mr. Arthur T. Wayne (1910), for whom this bird was named, writes:

This bird is well known to all the inhabitants along the coast, and during the spring tides in September, October, and November, countless thousands are annually killed, yet there is no diminution in its numbers, as the birds are vigorous and very prolific, and two broods are annually raised, each pair being able to raise 24 young under favorable circumstances. These birds, however, have innumerable enemies to contend with during the breeding season, as crows take their eggs at every opportunity, crabs catch the young, and the mink is ever on the alert; while spring tides often wash away the nest and eggs. Yet with all these vicissitudes there is absolutely no diminution of their numbers. From the last of February until November the notes of this bird can be daily heard, and I have often heard it shriek when the marsh hawk (Circus hudsonius) was attacking it. These birds are generally very quiet at high water, but as soon as the tide begins to recede, their notes can be heard all through the marshes.

Range: Atlantic coast of the United State from southeastern North Carolina to the central part of the east coast of Florida. The breeding range extends north to North Carolina (Beaufort) and south along the coast to South Carolina (Mount Pleasant and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah, St. Katherine’s Island, Blackbeard Island, Darien, St. Simons Island, Cumberland, and St. Marys); and Florida (Fernandina, Pilot Town, Matanzas Inlet, Sea Breeze, and Mosquito Inlet). In winter it is found somewhat farther south (near the head of Indian River, Florida).

Egg dates: South Carolina: 18 records, March 9, to June 24; ~ records, May 6 to 16. Georgia: 23 records, March 23 to June 25; 12 records, May 3 to June 3. Florida: 12 records, May 19 to July 25; 6 records, May 24 to 28.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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