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

General Description [-]
The Black Rail is the smallest rail in North America. The adults are blackish-gray with a darker top of the head, which is more evident in females. Males have a chestnut-colored nape. Adults have black or dark gray bills and red eyes.

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The Black Rail is the smallest rail in North America and is only about the size of a sparrow. Both males and females are similar in size with adults ranging from 10-15 cm, with a wingspan of 22-28 cm, and weighing 35 g (eastern). Black Rails appear grey to blackish-grey. The top of the neck and upper back are chestnut-colored and the top of the head is a darker grey than surrounding plumage (this is more evident in females) (Eddleman et al. 1994). Adults have the unique characteristic of having red eyes. Black Rails are best identified by their call which is described as "kickee-doo" or "kic-kic-kerr". They can also make a vocalization similar to the "kicker- calls" of Virginia Rails (Rallus limicola). When disturbed, Black Rails make an agitated growl noise described as a "grrr", "brrr", or "churr" generally repeated three times in a sequence (Eddleman et al. 1994, Weske 1969, Wilbur 1974, Repking 1975, Kerlinger and Sutton 1989). Females at nests give a scolding call described as "ink-ink-ink-ink" or "nk-nk-nk-nk" and a similar call for males is "kik-kik-kik-kik" or "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk" (Eddleman et al. 1994, Reynard 1974, Flores and Eddleman 1991, Wayne 1905). Females make a "croo-croo-croo" or "who-who-whooo" call rarely (Eddleman et al. 1994, Wayne 1905, Post and Enders 1969, Reynard 1972, Repking 1975, and Flores and Eddleman 1991).

Characters Most Useful for Identification [-]
Black Rails are secretive marsh birds that are generally active at night. They are very difficult to observe without disturbing them. Black Rails are best identified by their call which is described as "kickee-doo" or "kic-kic-kerr". Observers should not disturb breeding individuals by playing rail calls at known breeding locations.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification [-]
Adult males are easiest to identify by their call.

Behavior [-]
Black Rails are secretive marsh birds that are generally active at night. Their primary mode of transportation around their habitat is by running along the ground. They may use pathways created by other animals like mice (Weske 1969). They are capable of swimming short-distances (Weske 1969). They are typically reluctant to fly and when they do, flights are short. During migration, however, they are fast and strong fliers (Eddleman et al. 1994). Black Rails live in dense cover and cease calling when predators are nearby. They may be depredated by herons especially during high tides, but also owls, mammals, and hawks (Eddleman et al. 1994).

Diet [-]
Black Rails consume a variety of small aquatic invertebrates and seeds (Eddleman et al. 1994). Their diet appears to be somewhat opportunistic and information regarding diet is limited to a few studies of few individuals. What Black Rails eat may depend on the season and vary regionally as well. Based on studies of gut contents, food items that are known to be consumed include seeds such as those from bulrush and cattails, spiders, and insects such as beetles, weevils, ants, earwigs, and grasshoppers (Weske 1969, Flores and Eddleman 1991, Eddleman et al. 1994). Snails, amphipods, and small crustaceans have also been found (Huey 1916, Weske 1969, Flores and Eddleman 1991).
Black Rail Images
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The Best Time to See
Although they are active through the summer, Black Rails call most frequently early in the breeding season in May and June. Extreme dates reported in New York are April 19 and January 6.
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Black Rail present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.