The Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) is a highly secretive, sparrow-sized marsh bird. It generally walks or runs through the marsh, rarely flying or emerging from cover. It is heard far more often than it is seen. It breeds along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and, very patchily, on the Pacific coast of the U.S. and in Central America and Western South America. (Kaufman 1996; Taylor 1996; AOU 1998)
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Range is large, but distribution is highly localized. Breeding range includes California (San Francisco Bay area, Imperial Valley, San Luis Obispo County, formerly San Diego County); lower Colorado River valley, southeastern California and southwestern Arizona; Kansas (locally); northern and central Illinois, and southwestern Ohio; Atlantic coast from New York south to southern Florida; Gulf coast in eastern Texas and western Florida; Belize and Panama; and western Peru, Chile, and western Argentina (AOU 1998). This species has been recorded in summer (and possibly breeding) in Missouri, northwestern Indiana, extreme northern Baja California, Veracruz, Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and (at least formerly) Puerto Rico (AOU 1998). There are a few records in Canada but no confirmed breeding. One recent record from northern Brazil (BirdLife International).
Nonbreeding range includes the California coast, southeastern California, Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, Atlantic coast north to North Carolina, and breeding range in Belize and South America (AOU 1998).
The species is regarded as casual or accidental in several additional areas (AOU 1998).
The Black Rail is distributed along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and, very patchily, in California, Arizona, Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio; Belize, Panama, western Peru, Chile, and western Argentina. It has been recorded as present during the breeding season (and therefore possibly breeding) in Missouri, Indiana, Baja California, Veracruz, Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and (at least historically) Puerto Rico. The winter range includes the coast of California north to Tomales Bay, and the Imperial and lower Colorado River valleys; the Gulf coast from southeastern Texas east to Florida; the Atlantic coast north to North Carolina (casually to Maryland); and the breeding range in Belize and South America. (AOU 1998)
The Black Rail is a very small rail that is easily distinguished from other Laterallus rails and other rails occurring in its range by its very dark plumage with white spotting and barring (although the young of most rails are black). The female has paler underparts than the male. (Taylor 1996).
Length: 15 cm
Weight: 32 grams
Young resemble the young of other rails, all of which have black downy plumage, but differs in having narrow white barring on the sides (and adults do not have downy surface plumage).
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: BREEDING: Salt, brackish, and freshwater marshes, pond borders, wet meadows, and grassy "swamps." Cover of vegetation peripheral to marsh may possibly be important in reducing predation on rails flushed from marsh by high tide (Evens and Page 1986). Secretive, but may emerge from cover in early morning. Nests in or along edge of marsh, in area with saturated or shallowly flooded soils and dense vegetation, usually in site hidden in marsh grass or at base of Salicornia; on damp ground, on mat of previous year's dead grasses (Terres 1980), or over very shallow water. High tides may destroy nests (see Evens and Page 1986).
In northeastern North America, breed primarily in salt and brackish marshes (Davidson 1992). Before the 1950s, most nests in the Northeast were found in saltmarshes behind coastal barrier islands (Davidson 1992). However, wet meadows and freshwater areas of narrow-leaved cattail (TYPHA ANGUSTIFOLIA) and river bulrush (SCIRPUS FLUVIATILIS) have also been documented (Griscom 1923, Proctor 1981, Armistead 1990). In salt or brackish marshes, home ranges generally include dense stands of saltmeadow cordgrass (SPARTINA PATENS) mixed with saltwater cordgrass (S. ALTERNIFLORA), big cordgrass (S. CYNOSUROIDES), marsh spikegrass (DISTICHLIS SPICATA), black needlerush (JUNCUS ROEMERIANUS), black rush (J. GERARDI), or Olney's threesquare (SCIRPUS OLNEYI) (H. Wierenga, pers. comm., Kerlinger and Wiedner 1990). Also occur in the dryer, upland edges of these marshes where saltmeadow cordgrass mixes with marsh elder (IVA FRUTESCENS) and groundsel tree (BACCHARIS HALIMIFOLIA) in the saltbush community and with common reed (PHRAGMITES AUSTRALIS) in disturbed areas (Kerlinger and Wiedner 1990).
Research in wetlands along the lower Colorado River has revealed that water depth is an important and perhaps key habitat component. Black rails there are found typically where the water depth is less than two to four centimeters (R. Flores, pers. comm.). Other significant habitat factors may include vegetation density, distance to open water, and water regime stability (R. Flores, pers. comm.). Nesting takes place in the highest sections of the marsh, which have mesic to hydric soils and are flooded by only the highest tides (Todd 1977, Andrle and Carroll 1988). The area around the nest also typically includes lower wet areas, such as shallow pools and potholes (Andrle and Carroll 1988; W. Burt, W. R. Eddleman and H. Wierenga, pers. comms.).
NON-BREEDING: probably similar to breeding habitat, at least in eastern North America (Eddleman et al. 1994). Sites occupied in winter in San Francisco Bay are lower, smaller, more linear and more fragmented than breeding habitat (Eddleman et al. 1994).
The Black Rail is typically found in the shallow margins of salt marshes and, away from the coast, in freshwater marshes and wet meadows (Kaufman 1996; Taylor 1996; AOU 1998).
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Breeding populations in inland and northern Atlantic coastal areas migrate southward for winter; arrive in breeding areas in April-May. May be resident or make local migrations in California and southeastern U.S. Most black rails in the Northeast are probably migratory. Some of the earliest reported arrival dates are 10 April in New Jersey, 12 April in Maryland, and 19 April in New York (Bull 1964, Armistead 1990, Bull 1985). Southward migration is thought to occur from late September to mid-October (Bailey 1913, Todd 1977). Some of the latest fall records are 7 November in Maryland, 29 October in New York, and 1 November in New Jersey (H. Wierenga, pers. comm.; Bull 1985, 1964; respectively).
Comments: Reported food items include insects, isopods, and seeds of aquatic plants (Terres 1980). Probes substrate or picks items from surface. The principal diet consists of aquatic invertebrates, especially insects, and the seeds of aquatic vegetation (Ehrlich et al. 1988). The stomach contents of one black rail, collected at Elliott Island, Maryland in June of 1958, were fragments of larval and adult aquatic beetles (Coleoptera). Three genera of the family Hydrophilidae were represented: ENOCHRUS, HYDROCHARA, and TROPSITERNUS. Also identified was a curculionid, or weevil, from the genus CALENDRA (Spangler 1959).
The diet of the Black Rail consists mainly of small (less than 1 cm) aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, including snails, amphipods, isopods, spiders, ants, aphids grasshoppers, beetles, bugs, earwigs, and flies. Especially in winter, Black Rails may consume seeds as well (e.g., Typha cattails, Scirpus sedges). (Taylor 1996).
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 21 - 300
Comments: Occurrences have not been delineated using standardized criteria, but this species appears to be represented by a fairly large number of small occurrences (subpopulations) and locations (as defined by IUCN).
100,000 - 1,000,000 individuals
Comments: Population includes 25,000-100,000 individuals of subspecies jamaicensis (unpublished report 'Waterbird Conservation for the Americas 2001' cited in Wetlands International 2002), plus fewer than 10,000 individuals of subspecies coturniculus (Eddleman et al. 1994). Source: BirdLife International, 2013, species factsheet: for Laterallus jamaicensis..
Telemetry studies conducted on a resident population on the lower Colorado River showed an average nesting home range size of 0.43 ha with a significant core area of 0.10 ha (R. Flores, pers. comm.). In this study, black rails nested in fringe marsh lining a lake. Home ranges in this habitat may be significantly different in size and shape than in extensive saltmeadow cordgrass-dominated marshes in the Northeast. Although not determined through telemetry studies, territory size in the Elliott Island marshes of Dorchester County, Maryland is estimated to be three to four ha (J. S. Weske, pers. comm.).
In a study of breeding Black Rails in Florida, Legare and Eddleman (2001) estimated the mean home range during nesting as 1.3 hectares for males (range 0.82 to 3.1; n = 9) and 0.62 hectares for females (range 0.51 to 0.86, n = 6). In a study in California, comparable home range was estimated to be 0.59 hectares, with males having larger home ranges and females smaller ones (Tsao et al. 2009).
Black Rails may experience significant predation by avian predators, including Northern Harriers, Great Egrets, and Great Blue Herons (Evens and Page 1986).
Life History and Behavior
Comments: Active and vocal on moonlit nights (Stiles and Skutch 1989).
The peak calling period in the Elliott Island marshes of Maryland is thought to occur in early to mid-May (H. Wierenga, pers. comm.), while peak calling in southern New Jersey marshes may occur from late April to mid-May (Kerlinger and Wiedner 1990). The peak nesting period is from June to mid-July (Bull 1964, Kerlinger and Sutton 1989). The earliest egg date in the Northeast is a 16 May record of a nest with six eggs in Virginia (Bailey 1927). Other egg dates range from 20 May to 8 August in Maryland (Stewart and Robbins 1958, W. Burt, pers. comm.) and from 30 May to 15 August in New Jersey (Bent 1926, Kerlinger and Sutton 1989). In Maryland, birds have been found on territory until late September (H. Wierenga, pers. comm.).
Clutch size ranges from six to ten (Harrison 1975). Incubation lasts for approximately 16-20 days and is performed by both sexes (Ehrlich et al. 1988). The clutch hatches synchronously, and the chicks leave the nest within approximately 24 hours (W. Burt, pers. comm.; Todd 1977). After hatching, the black downy young are precocial, but continue to be fed by the parents for an undetermined length of time (Ehrlich et al. 1988).
The Black Rail's nest site is usually slightly above the ground or shallow water in a clump of vegetation. Clutch size is typically 6 to 8 eggs (range 3 to 13). Eggs are white to pale buff and dotted with brown. Incubation period (by both sexes) is 17 to 20 days. The downy young leave the nest within a day of hatching. (Kaufman 1996)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Laterallus jamaicensis
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Laterallus jamaicensis
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- Near Threatened (NT)
- Near Threatened (NT)
- Near Threatened (NT)
- Lower Risk/near threatened (LR/nt)
- Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
- Near Threatened (NT)