Yellow Rail, Coturnicops noveboracensis

The Yellow Rail is a small water bird and is part of the family Rallidae. Yellow rails are only slightly larger than sparrows; they grow to about 7.5 inches. They weigh 1.8 ounces, with a wingspan of about 11 inches. The males and females look similar. The mature adults have brown upperparts streaked with black, a yellowish-brown breast, a light belly and barred flanks. It has a short thick dark bill that turns yellow in the males during breeding season. The back feathers are edged with white. It has a yellow brown band over its eye with greenish-yellow legs. Not much is known about the Yellow Rail, with its decreasing numbers, the global population is only about 17,500 individuals.

The Yellow Rails breeding habitat is wet meadows and shallow marshes across Canada east of the Rockies, although their breeding, migration and wintering patterns have been decreasing. Also the northeastern United States and the entire northern US-Canadian border Great Plains to the Great Lakes, and a tiny population might exist in northern Mexico. Their nests are a shallow cup built with marsh vegetation on damp ground under a canopy of dead plants. They arrive on their breeding grounds from late April to mid May. The males establish large territory by continuously singing, and strutting around with its wings raised to flash his white wing patches. Monogamous couples may clean each other as part of their courtship. This bird migrates to the southeastern coastal United States.

Their diet consists of small insects, seeds, snails, spiders, and some crustaceans that they pick from the ground or vegetation as they walk through the rank grass. They usually only consume seeds in the winter.

The Yellow Rail is known for its elusive ways; when they are approached they are more likely to rely on their camouflage than flight. They are very rarely seen and they choose to stay close to the ground. When approached by predators, they prefer to run rather than to fly away. The rail’s call is usually given at night and sounds like two stones being clicked together. Due to loss of habitat, their population numbers have declined in recent years. Around St. Johns Bay, Canada, this bird was common as recently as 2004. There’s a small secluded breeding colony in Oregon’s Klamath Basin.

There are many factors in the deprecation of Yellow Rails; the loss of grassy wetlands because of commercial development, the dreadful conditions of the coastal marshes, and the difficulty of monitoring the Yellow Rail populations. These factors have prompted the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to observe this tiny water bird as a Species of Conservation Concern. The USFWS has also listed the bird as a Focal Species, which is a new designation initiated in 2005 to imitate an urgent conservation need, and a realistic chance of restoration success, with the potential to positively affect other species. Canada also looks at this bird as a Species at Risk. In the summer of 2002, surveyors found over 200 male Yellow Rails located around the southeastern end of Canada’s St. James Bay. The protection of such rich wetlands is very imperative to the survival of the Yellow Rails. Conservation efforts have been paying attention to habitat management and safeguarding. Additional efforts along with the basic research on the Yellow Rails natural history are needed.

Image Caption: Yellow Rail, Coturnicops noveboracensis, Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Dominic Sherony/Wikipedia  (CC BY-SA 2.0)