Okinawa Rail

The Okinawa Rail (Gallirallus okinawae) is a species of bird in the rail family Rallidae. It is endemic to Okinawa Island in Japan. It is found only in Yambaru, the northern part of Okinawa Island in the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. Its range is only 160 square miles. It is found from sea-level to the highest mountains at about 1630 feet above sea-level. Some birds may move lower in elevation and a little further south in the winter. Its habitat is evergreen broad-leaved forest, marshes, grassland and cultivated land close to forest areas and near water. Dense ground vegetation and standing water is required habitat for this species.

The adult is about 11.75 inches long and weighs about 15 ounces. It has short wings and tail, olive-brown upperparts, black underparts with white barring and a red bill and legs. It also has a red iris and eye-ring. The face is black with a white spot between the bill and eye and a white line behind the eye, extending back to the side of the neck. The young are paler versions of the adult and are mottled white below rather than barred. The spot in front of the eye is tinged with brown while the stripe behind is shorter than in the adult. The bill and iris are brownish and the legs and feet are yellow-ochre. It has a variety of loud calls. It is mostly heard early and in the late day.

The Okinawa Rail is a poor flier but can run rapidly. It spends most of its time on the ground but will occasionally roost in trees. In the morning, it preens and stretches before dropping straight to the ground. It is normally found in dense cover but will come into the open to bathe. It spends about 2 to 4 minutes bathing then preens for about 5 to 20 minutes. It feeds on lizards, amphibians, snails and large insects. Food is mainly taken from the forest floor but may also be taken from shallow water.

Okinawa Rails are monogamous and pairs appear to mate for life. The nest is built on the ground. It is made up of leaves, grass and fern fronds. The female lays two to four eggs between May and July. The oval eggs are white with pink, red, or brownish markings concentrated at the larger end. The downy chicks are black with yellowish legs and feet and a white bill with a black base and tip. Both the eggs and the chicks are often eaten by the Habu (a venomous snake).

The existence of the Okinawa Rail was confirmed in 1978 and was formally described in 1981. It is classified as and endangered species by Bird Life International due to its small, declining population and restricted range. The total population was estimated at 1800 individuals in 1986, and surveys between 1996 and 2004 put the population at a much lower 720 birds with a northward contraction in range of about 40%. A survey in 2006 showed no further contraction in range. Logging, agriculture, land development, and introduced predators all have a huge impact on the Okinawa Rail. The species is legally protected in Japan and has been declared a “National Monument” and a “Special Bird for Protection”. Many steps have been taken to insure the continued existence of this species. A captive breeding program has been planned for the future.

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