The Black Rail is an endangered bird and the smallest of all the rail species. It isslate-colored, with a black bill, red eyes and a white-speckled back. Its legs are moderately long and its toes are unwebbed. The males and females are similar in appearance with an average length of 5-6in with their wings expanding 10.5-11.5in. Their body weight ranges between 2-2.75oz.
Black Rails are commonly confused with the black-colored young of other rail species. The young rails are however glossy black, as opposed to the Black Rail’s more subtle dark color.
Black Rails prefer to inhabit high coastal salt marshes (upper portions of salt and estuarine marshes that are irregularly flooded by tides) and wet meadowsof some freshwater marshes.
They nest from southern New England to the Gulf States and winter from the southern Atlantic coast states, south to Central America. The largest populations of Black Rails in North America are found in Florida and California.
Due to its secretive habits, the life history of the Black Rail is poorly understood and its elusiveness makes it a sought-after species by avid hunters. The quality of the Black rail meat is fair, although it has a strong-tasting flavor.
Insects, small marine crustaceans and some seeds of aquatic vegetation and grasses and grains make up the bulk of the Black Rail diet.
Black Rails construct their nest in or along the edge of a marsh, usually in the tall grass of an open habitat. The nest is a deep cup of finely woven, soft grass, sedges and other available vegetation. It is usually concealed in a clump of green grass, with grasses arched over it so that it is hidden from above. The female lays 6 to 10 buff-white eggs with brown speckles. The incubation period is unknown, but estimates suggest that it probably lasts between16 to 20 days.
Although all rails prefer to run from danger rather than fly, the Black Rail is probably the least likely to take flight. It usually darts for cover in the thick grasses of a marsh. One of the factors threatening Black Rail populations is the heavy exploitation of their high marsh habitats for haying and grazing and this has contributed to a decline in their numbers. Localized predation by cats, dogs, raccoons and skunks may also be a factor limiting their populations. They have a life expectancy between 5-9 years in the wild.
The “Rail” derives its name from the Latin verb “raelare” which means, “to scrape” and provides a good description of one of the bird’s vocalizations. Black Rails are generally silent bird, but during the breeding season, the male utters a series of metallic “kik” or “kuk” notes described as “kik-kik-kerr” and “kik-ee-doo,” which is usually heard at night.
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