WatchList Species Account for King Rail (Rallus elegans)

Qualifies for the list as a Declining Yellow List Species


King Rail by FWS

Photo: Greg Lavaty

Widely distributed in the eastern U.S., the King Rail also ranges north to southern Ontario and along the Gulf Coast to southern Mexico; it is also found in Cuba. It withdraws from the northern part of its breeding range over the winter. Nesting in clumps of vegetation in shallow water, it is found in tidal freshwater and brackish marshes and in inland nontidal freshwater marshes but also found in ricefields in the south-central states. It is most abundant in coastal plain marshes.


This diurnal rail feeds mostly in shallow water, where crayfish and other crustaceans are its major food items, along with aquatic and other insects, fish, frogs and some seeds. Over the past several decades the King Rail has declined in population precipitously in much of the northern part of its range while appearing somewhat stable in most of the southern U.S., particularly in Florida and Louisiana; in the latter two states it shows the greatest winter abundance of anywhere in its range. Its decline in some areas is due to the destruction and degradation of wetlands, particularly the reduction of herbaceous floodplain wetlands brought about by agriculture and other development.


As a noctural migrant, the bird falls victim to hazards such as tall buildings, communications towers, and telephone wires, in addition to being struck and killed by cars. The best hope for the conservation of the species is on public wildlife refuges, where most of the highest quality wetlands are found.