New York Natural Heritage Program
King Rail
Rallus elegans Audubon, 1834

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The King Rail is a large (15-19 inches), chicken-sized rail with a slightly down-curved bill. Its wingspan is approximately 20 inches and it weighs between 10 and 13 ounces. It has tawny edges on the black-centered back feathers and tawny wing coverts. The head is slate colored with brown or grayish cheeks and buffy eyebrows. The underparts are cinnamon and the flanks are strongly barred black and white. Juveniles are darker above and paler below. The nest has been described as a round, elevated platform with a saucer-shaped depression. It usually has a round or cone-shaped canopy and a ramp. The eggs are pale buff with brown spots or blotches. King Rails have a distinctive call of a series of fewer than 10 kek-kek-kek notes that are fairly evenly spaced. (Meanley 1969, 1992)

Behavior [-]
The King Rail is a very secretive bird, creating well-concealed nests in the shallow parts of marshes on tussoks or clumps of grass. Between 9 and 14 eggs are laid during May and early August with incubation lasting 21-23 days. Both parents tend to the young. King Rails aggressively defend their nests and will chase away any species that comes close. They become solitary after the breeding season and prefer to migrate alone at night. (Meanly 1969, 1992)

Diet [-]
The majority of the King Rail's diet comes from crustateans and aquatic insects but various grains and seeds are also consumed, especially in winter (Meanly 1969).
King Rail Images
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The Best Time to See
King Rails begin to migrate to their breeding grounds in April, with courtship and egg laying occurring in late April to mid-July. The eggs hatch between June and early August. Non-resident birds (in the northern portion of the range) begin their migration to wintering areas in September. King Rails seen during the winter in New York may be local year-round residents. (Andrle et al. 1988, Meanly 1992, Levine 1998)
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find King Rail present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris)
    The king rail and clapper rail are almost identical in appearance and vocalization, with the clapper rail being slightly smaller and more grayish in color on top than the king rail. Both species have been known to occur in in the same breeding areas and may hybridize with each other. (Meanly 1969, Levine 1998).