The Black Rail, the smallest rail in North America, has a broad distribution, inhabiting tidal marshes and freshwater wetlands throughout the Americas. Two of its five subspecies breed in North America, the Eastern Black Rail (L. j. jamaicensis) in the eastern United States (and south into Central America) and the California Black Rail (L. j. coturniculus) in coastal California, northwestern Baja California, the lower Imperial Valley, and the lower Colorado River of Arizona and California. Whereas the Eastern Black Rail is at least partially migratory, wintering in the southern part of its breeding range, the California Black Rail is largely resident.
Because of its sporadic distribution and secretive habits, the Black Rail is of great interest to birdwatchers. Much remains to be learned of its life history, however, especially during migration and winter. Although it has a large and varied vocal repertoire, the function and context of its vocalizations remain poorly known. Both sexes assist in incubation and brood rearing, suggesting the species is monogamous, but the duration of its pair bond and variations in its mating system are still unstudied. Adult survival appears to be high in stable habitats, despite predation by herons and other avian predators during extreme high tides-a primary source of mortality for populations in tidal marshes.
Because it prefers shallow-water environments, the Black Rail faces numerous threats to its habitat, especially the ditching and draining of marshes and, in the western U.S., agricultural demands on water resources. Although population trends are difficult to assess accurately in this reclusive species, nearly all U.S. populations appear to have declined drastically in this century, and have only recently stabilized with the enactment of laws protecting wetlands in the last 25 years.