WatchList Species Account for Black Rail
(Laterallus jamaicensis)

Qualifies for the list as a Red List Species


Black Rail. Photo: Peter La Tourrette.

Photo: Peter La Tourrette © California Academy of Sciences

The elusive Black Rail breeds in a few locations in coastal marshes from Connecticut to Florida, along the Gulf Coast from Peninsular Florida to Texas, with sporadic records from the interior (Michigan and Kansas), though no nests have been confirmed in many years. In California breeds around San Francisco Bay area and on the lower Colorado River, though there is a paucity of recent records from the latter; few still resident at Mittry Lake, Arizona. There are also populations in the Caribbean, in Central America, and in northern South America. Populations in the latter regions may involve separate species.


The rail breeds in two types of marsh: in coastal salt marsh with Spartina species and and in freshwater marshs with bulrushes. In California tolerates a greater degree of tidal flooding so long as vegetation cover is available for escape during extreme high tides to avoid predation by herons. The California population is resident but in the east the birds probably move south along the coast after breeding. It may use wet meadows or agricultural areas during migration. Though population sizes are not known, more than 6,000 were estimated for San Pablo Bay, California in 1983.


Habitat loss throughout the species' range has been severe during the past century and the Lower Colorado River population is estimated to have declined 30% between 1973 and 1989, with an apparent concurrent range shift to Mittry Lake, Arizona. Between 1850 and 1973, about 95% of San Francisco Bay's tidal marshes were diked or filled. Breeding records in the midwest have dropped to zero with no confirmation since 1932. In the east, the species has been lost as a breeder in Massachusetts since the 1930s and may have declined elsewhere.


The loss of saltmarsh, and ditching to control mosquitos are the primary threats to the species. The spread of the introduced common reed Phragmites australis may also be reducing habitat quality. As the species prefers drier areas, often along the edge of marshland, it is more susceptible to burning and grazing pressure than other rails. In California, there has been massive habitat loss for salt production, agriculture, and urban development. Sea-level rise with global climate change also presents a real risk for this species.