New York Natural Heritage Program
Black Rail
Laterallus jamaicensis (Gmelin, 1789)
Birds

Threats [-]
Black Rails are known to breed consistently in only one location along the southern coast of Long Island in New York. Due to their rarity, they are highly susceptible to extirpation through stochastic, or random, events such as flooding, a low year of nesting productivity, high predation, or disease. Besides rarity in itself, habitat loss is the other major threat to this species' persistence in the state. The loss of coastal salt marsh habitat is occurring at dramatic rates along the east coast (Erwin et al. 2004). The spread of an invasive plant called common reed (Phragmites australis) into high marsh habitat may degrade habitat for the rails. Studies have shown that there is lower diversity and abundance of macroinvertebrates in Phragmites dominant marshes compared to marshes consisting primarily of native Spartina cordgrasses (Angradi et al. 2001). These macroinvertebrates may be consumed directly by the Black Rails or may be eaten by other invertebrates or small prey that the Black Rails eat, thereby affecting the abundance of prey. However, at the one known breeding site for Black Rails in New York, Phragmites has been present since 1950, so the rails may have some tolerance to it. Ditching and draining of coastal salt marsh for agriculture and mosquito control were past threats that created long-term habitat loss, the effects of which are still present. Finally, global climate change is a significant long-term threat to the persistence of Black Rails in NY. Flooding, caused by extreme weather events, could decimate the breeding population in the state in a matter of years. Changes to hydrologic processes resulting from coastal development coupled with increases in sedimentary sulfide associated with human development are also believed to play primary roles in the decline of coastal salt marsh (Montalto and Steenhuis 2004, Kolker 2005). Coastal development and urbanization limits the inland expansion of coastal salt marsh and coupled with rising sea-levels will likely continue to shrink salt marsh habitat.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices [-]
Since Black Rails are especially susceptible to predation when forced from marsh habitat (Eddleman et al. 1994), efforts to restore native Spartina marsh should take into account Black Rail breeding season and available habitat. The use of fire to control the spread of invasives in marshes could be damaging to Black Rail habitat or could destroy nests and young if the burns are not timed properly. Efforts that restore and protect coastal high salt marsh would benefit this species (Eddleman et al. 1994).

Research Needs [-]
Research is needed to determine the population and trends of the single reliable breeding location in the state. Many aspects of the species biology and life history remain understudied, including territoriality, social interactions and foraging behavior (see Eddleman et al. 1994). Reasearch on diet is limited (Eddleman et al. 1994) and would further understanding of food requirements in habitats that are changing due to the spread of invasive species and climate change. Further inventory of salt marshes on the south shore of Long Island and follow-up visits to incidental and suspected breeding locations may identify new breeding sites. Research into methods to retain current saltmarsh and restore areas that have been lost could benefit this species in the future.