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Yellow Rail

YELLOW RAIL

© Larry Master
Photographer: Larry Master

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Coturnicops novaboracensis (Gmelin)

OTHER NAMES: Yellow Crake, Little Yellow Rail (Terres 1980).

DESCRIPTION: A small (16-18 cm [6-7.5 in.]) and very secretive rail with buffy-yellow plumage except for darker crown, broad eyeline, back streaks, and barring on flanks (Terres 1980, Bookhout 1995, Robert 1997). Thin, white, irregular barring also may be present on upperparts and flanks. In flight, white secondaries become visible and form a diagnostic white wing patch. Chicken-like bill can vary from yellow in males during the breeding season, to a darker color in males during the nonbreeding season and in females year round; legs and eyes dark. Plumage of sexes similar, but males tend to be larger than females (Bookhout 1995, Robert 1997). Primary vocalization of adult breeding males a series of four to five clicks given rapidly over about a two-second time period. Other vocalizations include squeaks, wheezes, cackles, clunks, croaks, rohrs, whines, and moans (Bookhout 1995). Three subspecies recognized, with nominate race, C. n. novaboracensis, found in North America (Bookhout 1995). Asian subspecies may actually be separate species (Bookhout 1995, AOU 1998).

DISTRIBUTION: In North America, breeding distribution poorly known and very local. In Canada, thought to extend from southern Mackenzie and eastern Alberta to western Nova Scotia. In United States, breeding occurs locally in Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and possibly Maine. Winter distribution primarily along East and Gulf Coasts from North Carolina to Texas. Two other subspecies found in Mexico and Asia. In Alabama, distribution is unclear. Only five records since those published in Imhof (1976, G. Jackson, pers. comm.). Winter records from Inland Coastal Plain (e.g., Black Belt) and Gulf Coast regions, but probably occurs anywhere during migration (Imhof 1976; Jackson 2002b; G. Jackson, pers. comm.).

HABITAT: Breeds in relatively large (i.e., more than 10 hectares [25 acres]) marshes, usually containing dense stands of sedges, rushes, bulrush, cordgrass, and other emergents. Prefers areas with damp soil, but with little standing water. In winter, drier areas of coastal cordgrass marshes, freshwater marshes, grain fields, rice paddies, and damp grassy meadows selected (Bookhout 1995, Robert 1997, Van Dam et al. 2001).

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Migration occurs at night, and tower kills indicate some individuals may migrate in groups (Bookhout 1995). Individuals arrive on breeding grounds in late April and May, and leave for wintering grounds in September or October. Males are territorial; monogamous pair bonds thought to be formed on breeding grounds. Both parents help build a cup nest on, or near, the ground. Nest composed of dead grasses and sedges and covered with canopy of dead vegetation. Additional nests may be used for brooding. Typical clutch size around eight with a single egg laid per day. Eggs have creamy buff ground color and a circular band of reddish brown flecks around larger end. Incubation period is 17-18 days; only female incubates. Hatching is synchronous; newly hatched young covered with black down leave nest after one to two days. Young have a “wing-claw” on second digit that aids in climbing. Brooding and feeding of young continues for about three weeks and young become independent in about 35 days. A single brood is raised per season. Foraging occurs on the ground primarily during daylight hours. Snails, insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various types of seeds make up diet (Bookhout 1995, Robert 1997). Little known about wintering biology.

BASIS FOR STATUS CLASSIFICATION: Current status unclear. Very secretive habits and preferred wintering habitat make species difficult to study. Considered a moderately high-priority species by Partners In Flight (PIF) because it occurs in low relative abundance and winters in very restricted coastal areas that are expected to undergo severe deterioration in the future. Further, little population trend data exists (PIF 2002). Greatest threat is loss of wetland habitats to agricultural fields, cattle farms, drainage, dredging, and development as urbanization spreads (Van Dam et al. 1998). Coastal and wetland areas of Alabama are important to species survival.

Author: Thomas M. Haggerty


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