WatchList Species Account for Yellow Rail
(Coturnicops noveboracensis)

Qualifies for the list as a Red List Species


Photo: © Larry Master, NatureServe
Photo: Larry Master, NatureServe

Preferring to run and hide among marsh vegetation, the Yellow Rail is one of North America’s most elusive species. It can elude observation from only inches away. During breeding it generally does not call until after dark. It is widely but very locally distributed during breeding in the U.S. and Canada, chiefly east of the Rocky Mountains, preferring the higher and drier margins of freshwater and brackish marshes but also wet sedge meadows, swampy meadows and wet, cut-over hay fields. Favored nesting sites are shallow marshes with water depth less than six inches, grading to saturated soil. In fall the bird is found in hay and grain fields, wet meadows, and interior and coastal marshlands.


Small freshwater snails are the most important component of the Yellow Rail's diet, along with other invertebrates and seeds. In winter it is found in coastal marshes from North Carolina to south Texas. A race of the species is found in eastern Asia. Though very little is known of its migration, there are some indications that it migrates in groups. It is rarely found in cattails and invasion of its habitat by woody plants diminishes its value to the species.


Mortality factors include probable predation by Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls, in addition to falling victim to farm machinery during hay cutting and baling. Some also strike towers during their nocturnal migration. Ditching and draining of wetlands have destroyed much habitat for the bird and grazing by cattle affects emergent vegetation near the shore, the zone that the rail prefers.


Management to retain wet sedge meadows and controlled burning to stop the spread of woody vegetation benefit the Yellow Rail; mowing is also useful in maintaining suitable habitat for the bird. No information is available on its population trends. Research is needed into successful nesting and wintering habitat requirements. A better understanding of its numbers and distribution is also needed. The Mexican subspecies has not been seen for 30 years, and its status should be investigated and evaluated.