Bird of the Week, April 30, 2013,
King Rail


King Rail by Greg Lavaty


Back in the days before automobiles, the King Rail was called the “stage driver,” since its "chuck-chuck" call reminded listeners of a rider or teamster clucking to his horses. Another folk name for this rail is “marsh hen,” because the bird looks a bit like a long-billed chicken, and marshes are where you will find them—if you’re lucky.


These solitary, elusive birds are more often heard than seen as they forage through their freshwater wetland habitats in search of crustaceans and insects. The King Rail was first scientifically described in 1834 by John James Audubon, and is the largest North American rail, about the size of a crow.


Over the past several decades, the King Rail has declined in population in the northern part of its range, while appearing to remain somewhat stable in most of the southern United States. It is most threatened by the destruction and degradation of wetlands caused by agriculture and other development, pollution, and pesticide contamination. This species often suffers fatal collisions with tall buildings, communications towers, and telephone wires during its nocturnal migrations.


The best hope for the conservation of this species is on public wildlife refuges, where most of the highest quality wetlands are found. Strong wetland protection and pollution laws are also essential to maintain suitable habitat. Within our system of Bird Conservation Regions, ABC protects habitat for the King Rail and many other wetland-dependent bird species.



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Photo: Greg Lavaty,; Range Map, NatureServe