Yellow Rail

Coturnicops noveboracensis

  • Version: 2.0 — Published March 2, 2015
  • Lionel Leston and Theodore A. Bookhout

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Yellow Rail in North and Middle America.

Very local breeder throughout range. Casual to other U.S. states.

Adult Yellow Rail, Aitkin Co., MN, June.

Small, secretive marshbird. The crown is dark brownish black; upperparts are deep brown and black with prominent buffy striping. The feathers of the back, scapulars, and tertials have at least two distinctive white bars. Face and underparts are buffy-yellow, with lower belly white. Short yellow or blackish bill; becomes corn yellow in male during breeding season. Very short tail. Dark stripe through eyes. Indistinct white patch at back of wings. Image by Brian E. Small.; photographer Brian E. Small

This secretive bird, the second smallest of North American rails, is likely more abundant than encounters would indicate. It is extremely difficult to observe because, like other rails, it prefers to run or hide instead of flying and commonly moves beneath procumbent vegetation. Sprunt's (Sprunt 1970: 197) description is revealing: “the Yellow Rail is much more like a small mammal than a bird. It slips silently through the grasses like a phantom, barely keeping out of the way of one's feet. The observer may be within inches of the birds and yet never catch a glimpse of them.”

The male's call during the breeding season, given most frequently after complete darkness, is a unique metallic 5-note call, click-click, click-click-click, easily imitated by tapping two stones together. Individual birds respond to such imitations, often approaching closely enough to be captured.

This species is widely distributed in the United States and Canada, chiefly east of the Rocky Mountains. Within the breeding range, however, its presence is quite local. Breeding birds generally inhabit fresh- and brackish-water marshes, preferring the higher (drier) margins. In autumn this rail is found in varied habitats such as hay fields, grain fields, and wet meadows, as well as in interior and coastal marshlands. Its principal foods are snails, other aquatic invertebrates, and seeds. The Yellow Rail, not legally hunted in any state or province, is listed as Threatened or Endangered in some states and as Vulnerable in Quebec. Vernacular names include Yellow Crake and Clicker.

Two subspecies are recognized in North America: Coturnicops noveboracensis noveboracensis of Canada and the United States, and C. n. goldmani, known only from the state of México, Mexico, and possibly extinct.

Recommended Citation

Leston, L. and T. A. Bookhout (2015). Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.