Largely confined to the southeastern U.S., Mexico, and Cuba, the King Rail occasionally breeds much farther north, including southern Ontario. Little is known about the King Rail’s migratory behavior, but they are thought to be solitary nocturnal migrants.
The primary means of locomotion in King Rails is walking or running. King Rails seldom fly unless they are migrating or are closely approached by a predator. They are also capable of swimming. Running chases are used to defend nesting territories from intruders.
On this page
Description of the King Rail
The King Rail is a large rail with a long, slightly decurved bill, reddish foreneck and breast, black flanks barred with white, and tawny-edged, black back feathers. Length: 15 in. Wingspan: 20 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble adults but are duller.
Insects and crustaceans.
Forages by wading in shallow water.
Breeds in scattered locations throughout parts of the eastern U.S. and is resident in the southeastern U.S.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the King Rail.
King Rails will chase other rails out of their territories.
Wetland protection will continue to be important for the survival of King Rails.
The call is a long series of “kek-kek-kek” notes at regular intervals.
Virginia Rails are much smaller.
Clapper Rails have grayish rather than tawny edgings to the back feathers.
The nest is a platform of grasses and aquatic plants placed in vegetation above water level.
Color: Buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21-23 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the King 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 King Rail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
RALLUS ELEGANS Audubon
This large, handsome rail is an inhabitant of the freshwater marshes of the interior. It is never seen in the salt marshes of the coast except on migrations or in winter and even then it prefers fresh water. Audubon (1840) has well described its favorite haunts, in the words of his friend Bachnian, as follows:
Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the fresh-water marsh hen, and there it may be seen glidipg swiftly among the tangled rank grasses and aquatic weeds, or standing on the broad leaves of the yellow cyamus and fragrant water Lu11. or forcing its way through the dense foliage of pontederia. and saQitt an Ge. There, during the sickly season, it remains secure from the search of man, and there, on some hillock or little island of the marsh, it builds its nest. In such places I have found so many as 20 pairs breeding within a space having a diameter of 30 yards.
Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says:
This fine species, which is locally known as the fresh water marsh hen, is abundant on abandoned rice plantations and in ponds of fresh water where there s a dense growth of reeds and water plants. It is a permanent resident, but during protracted droughts is forced to migrate from the ponds in order to procure food and water. On the freshwater rivers it is most numerous, and breeds in numbers.
C. J. Pennock tells me that in Florida, near St. Marks and about Punta Gorda, the habitats of the two large rails come together, or even overlap, in the marshes of the tidal rivers and creeks. The clapper rails fairly swarm, where the marshes are in wide open areas, even well up the rivers; but, at the first appearance of wooded tracts along these waterways, the clapper rails disappear and are replaced by the king rails. He found the latter nesting regularly in a small pond, near one of these creeks, which was usually fresh, but at high tides it became salty.
Nesting.: The only nest of a king rail that I have ever seen was shown to me by Oscar E. Baynard, near Plant City, Florida, on March 30, 1925. He had found it while investigating a colony of 80 pairs of boat-tailed grackles in an extensive swamp overgrown mainly with pickerel weed (Pontederia), a scattered growth of small “ty-ty” bushes and a few flags (Typhus). The nest was in the midst of the colony of grackles, which had nests in the bushes, and was not far from a least bittern’s nest. It was beautifully concealed in a thick growth of pickerel weed, which grew all around and over it. It was well made of the dead, dry stems of pickerel weed, and flags and was deeply hollowed; it measured 8 inches in diameter and the rim was about 8 inches above the water, which was about a foot deep. It contained nine practically fresh eggs. The rail was heard, but not seen.
T. E. McMullen tells me that in New Jersey it nests in or near marshes in grass tussocks, sedge tussocks, or water arum, where the nests are built up from 6 to 18 inches above shallow water.
William B. Crispin wrote to me in 1913 that it was then a common resident of Salem County, New Jersey, and that it builds its nest in the tussocks or the thick grasses of a fresh water marsh or meadow; the nest is lined with a few dry grasses, arched over an(l well concealed by the green grasses about it.
Mr. Wayne (1910) says that, in South Carolina, “numerous nests” that he has “found have been invariably placed in rushes or buttonwood bushes, 8 inches to a foot and a half over water.” Referring to the nesting habits of the king rail in Henry County, Illinois, A. C. Murchison (1895) writes:
Around the edge of the marsh are a number of large ponds, and on the side of these where the water was not over a foot or so deep, or any place in a shallow pond and even in the fields, we found the nests. The nests in the ponds were placed in clumps of coarse rushes or cat-tails, and from 3 to 8 inches above the water. Some of the dead rushes were bent down to form a slight platform in the middle of the clump, and on this the nest material of rushes and grass was laid to a thickness of from 1 to 4 inches, hollowed just enough to hold the cggs. The nests found on the ground were placed in slight hollows scratched by the birds in a thick clump of grass and lined with dead grass, forming a close mat from 1 to 3 inches thick. In all eases where the set was complete the rushes were very neatly interwoven to form a canopy that very often led to the detection of the nest. I think the grass canopy is usually the sign of a full set, as it is not often found over a small number of fresh eggs.
Eggs: The king rail lays from 6 to 15 eggs, from 8 to 11 being the commonest numbers. They are ovate in shape and the shell is smooth and slightly glossy. The ground color averages lighter than in eggs of the clapper rails, but not so light as in those of the California species; it is pale buff, varying from “cream buff” to “pale olive bufF.” They are sparingly and irregularly spotted, mostly in small spots, with various shades of “vinaceous drab,” “army brown” and “vinaceous brown” and sometimes with a few spots of brighter browns. The measurements of 56 eggs averaged 41 by 30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 44 by 32, 38.5 by 28 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation does not seem to be known. The hatching process is well described by W. F. Henninger( 1910) as follows:
A fourth nest contained two eggs and one young and while looking at the third egg I noticed a small hole and soon had the chance to see a young rail chick’s bill pecking away at its inclosure. The chick kept up a constant pecking and calling with a shrill voice “peep, peep,” till the one half of the egg, the more pointed end, dropped away. The blackish little creature showed some traces of blood and seemed to have a hard time to tree itself from the membrane, and it took considerable time till it had extricated itself from the other half of the egg, the whole process occupying perhaps 16 to 20 minutes. Then it shuffled down to its brother and laid there gaping from time to time, where I left it after having seen one of the most interesting phases of wild bird life.
Audubon (1840) says:
The young, which are at first black, leave the nest as soon as they burst the shell, and follow their mother, who leads them along the borders of the streams and poois, where they find abundance of food, consisting of grass seeds, insects, tadpoles, leeches, and small crayfish. At this early period, when running among the grass, which they do with great activity, they may easily he mistaken for meadow mice.
Plumages: In the king rail the downy young is well covered with short, thick, black down. The juvenal plumage appears first on the under parts, then on the back and still later on the head and neck; the wings appear last, when the young bird is nearly grown. In this plumage the upper parts arc much like the adult, but darker; the upper back is nearly black with brown edgings; the under parts are dull white or bully white, washed with pinkish buff or “light pinkish cinnamon” on the neck and sides; many feathers of the breast and belly are tipped with dusky; the wings are much like those of the adult, except for a few whitish tips on the median coverts, which soon wear away. During September and October progressive changes take place toward maturity, by continuous molt of the contour plumage. The pinkish bull on the under parts increases in extent and intensity during September; and the barred flanks, in dull tones, are acquired in October or a little earlier. By November the young bird is in practically adult plumage, though the colors do not attain their full brilliancy until the next molt.
Adults have a complete molt in August and September and a partial molt of the contour plumage in early spring.
Food: Audubon (1840) says:
when grown they feed on a variety of substances, and it has appeared to me that they eat a much greater proportion of seeds and other vegetable matters than the salt-water marsh hens. It is true, however, that, in the gizzard of the latter we find portions of the Spartina glabra; but when that kind of food is not to be procured, which is the case during three-fourths of the year, they feed principally on “fiddlers,’ small fish, and mollusca. In the gizzard of the present species, besides the food already mentioned, I have always found a much greater quantity of the seeds of such grasses as grow in the places frequented by them. On one occasion I found the gizzard crammed with seeds of the cane (Arundo tecta); and that of another contained a large quantity of the seed of the common oat, which had evidently been picked up on a newly-sown field adjoining to the marsh.
W. Leon Daweon (1903) writes;
The food of the marsh hen consists of insects, slugs, leeches, tadpoles, and small crayfish, besides a goodly proportion of seeds from aquatic and palustral plants. The last are obtained not only from the soft bed of ooze upon which they may have fallen, but from the seed pods themselves, since the bird can climb quite nimbly. Like all birds of this class, the most active hours are spent just after sunset and before sunrise. But in a region where they were in little fear of molestation, I have seen them deploy upon an extensive mud flat in broad daylight and go prodding about in company with migrant sandpipers, for the worms which riddle the ooze with their burrows. At such times, too, I have seen a few standing stock still for a quarter of an hour at a stretch, evidently to catch a wink of sleep along with their sun bath, and trusting, perhaps, to their more vigilant neighbors to give warning of approaching danger.
Behavjor: Audubon (1840) writes:
The flight of this rail resembles that of the salt-water kind, but is considerably stronger and more protracted. When suddenly flushed, they rise and go off with a chuck, their legs dangling beneath, and generally proceed in a straight line for some distance, after which they drop among the thickest grass, and run off with surprising speed. In several instances they have been known to stand before a careful pointer. They are less apt to take to the water than the RaUus cre pit ens, and are by no means so expert at diving.
Col. N. S. Goss (1891) says:
Its flights, when not suddenly started, are at dusk and during the night. It springs into the air with dangling legs and rapid strokes of its short wings; but if going any distance, its legs, like its neck, are soon stretched out to their fuli extent, flying rather slowly and near the ground. Its call note, “Creek, creek, creek, creek,” and of flight, “Cark, cark, cark,” can often be heard both night and day, and at times during the early breeding season they are almost as noisy as the guinea hens. If it were not for its voice its presence would seldom be known, as it skulks and hides from its pursuers, and when hard pressed runs into the deeper waters within the reeds and rushes, preferring to swim (and can also dive) to taking wing, knowing well that it is safer within its watery, grassy cover, for which it is so well adapted.
Mr. Murchison. (1895) refers to its notes as follows:
One of the very characteristic sounds of bird voices to be heard on the borders and nearby ponds of the large swamps in Henry County, Ililnois, is the “chuckchuck” of the king rail, or “stage driver,” as he is called by the natives, from the almost exact imitation of the “chuck “of the plowboy to his plodding team.
Enemies: The king rail is considered a game bird and is pursued to some extent by sportsmen. Its flesh is said to be tender and juicy and to resemble that of the sora rail, as it is largely a vegetarian. But its flight is so slow and it is so easily killed that it is not much of a sporting proposition.
Audubon (1840) says:
These birds are rarely shot by common gunners, on account of the difficulty of raising them, and because they generally confine themselves to places so swampy and covered with briars, smilaxes, and rough weeds, that they are scarcely accessible. But although they are thus safe from men they are not without numerous enemies. My friend Bachman once killed a large moccasin snake, on opening which he found an old bird of this species, that had evidently been swallowed but a short’ time before. Its feathers are frequently found lying on thc banks of rice-fields, ponds, and lagoons, in places where the tracks of the mink plainly disclose the plunderer. The barred owl and the great horned owl also occasionally succeed in capturing them in the dusk. “On one occasion,” says my friend Bachman, in a note addressed to me, “while placed on a stand for deer, I saw a wild cat creeping through a marsh that was near to me, evidently following by stealthy steps something that he was desirous of making his prey. Presently he made a sudden pounce into a bunch of grass, when I immediately heard’ the piercing cries of the marsh hen, and shortly after came passing by me the successful murderer with the bird in his mouth.”
Mr. Wayne (1910) writes:
In the month of April, 1900, I was observing a nest of this species in a buttonwood bush, which was in a pond of water, and, about every other day, I waded into the pond to see how many eggs were there. About the 8th of May, I judged that the full complement of eggs would be completed, and upon visiting the nest in the afternoon which was very cloudy, I saw what I supposed to be the bird incubating. But upon close inspection I was very much surprised to find that what I took for the bird was a huge moccasin (Ancistrodon piscivorus), which I promptly shot. This snake had eaten all the eggs and perhaps caught the bird as the feathers wcre scattered around the nest.
Range: E astern United States, Mexico, and southeastern Canada. The Cuban bird has been separated as a new subspecies, Rallus el.eganr ramsdeni Riley.
Breeding range: North to southern Minnesota (.Jackson, Faribault, Waseca, and Minneapolis); southern Wisconsin (Madison, Janesville, Jefferson County, and Racine); southern Ontario (St. Clair Flats and Listowel); northern Ohio (Port Clinton, Middle Bass Island, and Cleveland); New York (Buffalo, Branchport, Ithaca, and near New York City); and Connecticut (Saybrook). East to Connecticut (Saybrook); New Jersey (Avalon, Sumrriit, Newark, and Repaupo); Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia); Maryland (Tolehester); Virginia (Wallops Island); North Carolina (Raleigh and Lake Ellis); South Carolina (Waverly Mills, Mount Pleasant, and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah and Blackbeard Island); and Florida (Gainesville, Titusvile, and Fort Myers). South to Florida (Titusville, Fort Mye~rs, Tarpon Springs, Tallahassee, and Whitfield); Alabama (Barachias, Autaugaville, Greensboro, and Mobile); Mississippi (Vicksburg); Louisiana (Calcasieu); and (rarely) Texas (Corpus Christi). West to (rarely) Texas (Corpus Christi); Oklahoma (Wister); northwestern Arkansas (Eureka Springs); eastern Kansas (Wichita, Stafford County, and Manhattan); eastern Nebraska (Falls City, Lincoln, and Omaha); western Iowa (Wall Lake and probably Sioux City); and southwestern Minnesota (Heron Lake).
The king rail also has been observed or taken in South Dakota (Vermilion); North Dakota (Fargo, October 15, 1925); Minnesota (Lake Minnetonka in September 1911, and in Ottertail County); Ontario (Toronto, September, 1903, and Ottawa, May 7,1896); Vermont (Bennington, May 1910); and Maine (several records in the vicinity of Portland).
Winter range: Southern part of the breeding range and coast regions of Louisiana and Texas, rarely to east-central Mexico. North to Texas (Brownsville and Corpus Christi); southern Louisiana (New Orleans and Mandeville); Mississippi (Hancock County); Alabama (Greensboro); and South Carolina (Mount Pleasant). East to South Carolina (Mount Pleasant., Port Royal, and probably Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah and Blackbeard Island); and Florida (Titusvile). South to Florida (Fort Myers); Louisiana (Octave Pass and Vermilion Bay); Texas (Brownsville); and rarely Mexico, Vera Cruz (Tlacotalpam).
There are also records of winter occurrence north to Virginia (Wallops Island, January 9 to February 3, 1921); Maryland (Pawtuxent River, December 16, 1889; Marshall Hall, December 2, 1914 and Cecil County, February 15, 1917); Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, December 12, 1909); New York (Greene, January 1891, and Ithaca, November 29, 1901); Connecticut (Meriden, October 14, 1914, Milford, December 15, 1892, and Saybrook, January 14,1876); Massachusetts, Needham, October 10, 1907, Nahant, November 21, 1875, West Barnstable, December 30, 1909, Cambridge, December 30, 1896, and Ellisville,January 20, 1903); Michigan (Port Huron, December 13,1902, Hudson, December11, 1896, Monroe, December 12, 1908, and Detroit, February 6,1907, and February 1909); Ontario (Point Pelee, Decemher 31, 1906); and Wisconsin (Beaver Dam, December 19, 1906).
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: Pennsylvania, Erie, April 17, 1902, and Berwyn, May 4, 1905; New Jersey, Salem, April ~6, 1914, Cape May, May 6,1880, and South Amboy, May 12, 1879; New York, Montauk Light, March 3, 1887,Gcneva, April 19, 1908, And Buffalo, May 4,1914; Arkansas, Brookland, April 29, 1914; Missouri, Fayette, April 2, 1887, Corning, April 4,1913, and St. Louis, April 9; Illinois, Chicago, March 27, Rockford, April 3, 1887, Alton, April 5, 1894, Farina, April 10, 1897, Fernwood, April 10, 1887, Muford, April 13, 1909, Morgan Park, April 14, 1895, and Glen Ellyn, April 19, 1899; Indiana, Richmond, April 1, 1914, Worthington, April 10, 1908, Bicknel], April 7,1921, Crawfordsville, April 12, 1921, And Indianapolis, April 15, 1916; Ohio, Medina, April 10, 1922, Circleville, April 11, 1917, Huron, April 16, 1912, Montgomery, April 18, 1895, Cleveland, April 19, 1880; Michigan, Petersburg, April 20, 1886, Vicksburg, April 23, 1911, I)etroit, April 28, 1907, and Anii Arbor, May 4, 1910; Ohtario, Point Pelee, April 22, 1908; and Ottawa, May 7, 1896; Iowa, Keokuk, March 27, 1894, April 5, 1889, Sioux City, April 10, 1887, New Hampton, April 14, 1921, National, April 15, 1909, and Mount Vernon, April 22, 1907; Wisconsin, Burlington, April 4, 1919, Milwaukee, April 10, 1911, Madison, April 21, 1911, Whitewater, May 1,1911, Delavan, May 3, 1896, Berlin, May 6, 1914, Elkhorn, May 8,1909, and Racine, May 10, 1907; Minnesota, Waseca, April 15, 1893, Heron Lake, April 22, 1890, Fairmount, April 23, 1916, Hennepin County, April 27, 1890, Jackson, May 5,1903, and Lanesboro, May 12, 1908; Kansas, Emporia, April 14, 1885, Onaga, April 23, 1891, Paola, April 28, 1918, and Wichita, May 9, 1916; and Nebraska, Falls City, April 13, 1889. Falit migration: .–Late dates of fall departure are: Nebraska, Nebraska City, September 20, 1900, Lincoln, September 22, 1890, and Gresham, September 24, 1896; Kansas, Lawrence, November 4,1905; Oklahoma, Caddo, November 1, 1883; Minnesota, Jackson, August 25, 1902; Wisconsin, Delavan, October 22, 1894; Iowa, Keokuk, September 26, 1899, and McGregor, November 2, 1890; Ontario, Point Pelee, August 22, 1909; Michigan, Manistee, October 16, 1904, Detroit, October 30, 1904, and Ann Arbor, November 5,1888; Ohio, Youngstown, October 7, 1916, Cedar Point, October 22, 1906, Oberlin, October 23, 1906, and Lakeside, October 30, 1918; Indiana, Indianapolis, October 4, 1914, and Richmond, November 11, 1916; Illinois, La Grange, September 28, 1914, Feruwood, October 13, 1885, Canton, October 27, 1894, and Warsaw, November 8,1899; Connecticut, Portland, September 18, 1913, North Haven, September 26, 1905, and Meriden, October 4, 1914; New York, Amityville, September 7, 1891; New Jersey, Avalon, September 22, 1902, Camden, October 17, 1915, and Pennsville, October 20, 1914; and the District of Columbia, Washington, November 7,1891.
Egg dates: Illinois: 31 records, May 4 to June 26; 16 records,. May 15 to June 10. Minnesota and Wisconsin: S records, May 21 to June 30.