King Rail

Rallus elegans

  • Version: 3.1 — Published February 15, 2018
  • Bradley A. Pickens and Brooke Meanley

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the King Rail in North America.

Figure 1. Approximate breeding range and principal distribution of the King Rail in North America.

Definitive Basic King Rail.

Large tawny rail with slender bill, longer than head and slightly decurved. Laterally compressed body and long toes. Upper parts olive brown, breast rufescent orange, flanks barred with black and white; tail short and often uplifted. Alternating dark brown and pale orange stripes on sides of neck, giving way to well streaked back -- black centers to scapulars with pale orange-buff edges. Uniform upperwing coverts and broad and dark outer primaries and rectrices distinguish Definitive Basic from Formative plumage.

© Craig Brelsford , Florida , United States , 26 January 2017

"Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh hen, and there it may be seen gliding swiftly among the tangled rank grasses and aquatic weeds, or standing on the broad leaves of the yellow cyamus and fragrant water-lily, or forcing its way through the dense foliage of pontederiae and sagittariae. There, during the sickly season, it remains secure from the search of man, and there, on some hillock or little island of the marsh, it builds its nest. In such places I have found so many as 20 pairs breeding within a space having a diameter of 30 yards." —John Bachman in Bent (1).

Similar to other rails, the King Rail is difficult to observe, but this large rail is noted for its striking appearance and loud vocalizations. First described by Audubon in 1835 (2), the King Rail is associated with freshwater, oligohaline, and brackish marshes, as well as rice fields. It feeds largely on crustaceans and aquatic insects in a variety of water bodies, including shallow flooded emergent vegetation, temporary ponds, creeks, and along the edge of ditches, lakes, and mudflats. The King Rail has a wide geographic distribution in the eastern United States with strongholds along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, and possibly Florida. Northern populations are migratory, but the specific overwintering locations of these populations remain unknown.

Despite this broad geographic range, King Rail populations have declined alarmingly in the past 50 years with the species now listed as threatened or endangered in 12 eastern and Midwestern states, as well as in Canada. In response to these declines, research has shown that populations in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River valleys, as well as the Midwestern U.S., are particularly scarce. These population declines likely related to the direct loss of wetlands, but evidence also indicates that King Rails are sensitive to broad-scale changes in hydrological regimes, such as the impoundment or stabilization of water levels, that have a profound influence wetland vegetation.

Despite being a species of concern, the King Rail is a game bird in 13 states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, although the species does not appear to be a common, specific target for hunters. Vernacular names for the King Rail include marsh hen, mud hen, and rice chicken.

At least two subspecies of King Rail are now recognized: Rallus elegans elegans of North America and R. e. ramsdeni of Cuba (see Systematics). Rallus elegans forms a superspecies with R. wetmorei, the Plain-flanked Rail, of northern coastal Venezuela, and various species of R. longirostris sensu lato, the Clapper Rail and related taxa (3). Species limits in this superspecies complex have been debated for many years (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13). A comprehensive genetic analysis (14) led to R. longirostris, as recognized by the American Ornithologists' Union (15), being split into three species and R. elegans split into two species, with a subspecies endemic to central Mexico now treated as a separate species, R. tenuirostris, the Aztec Rail (16). Given these new species limits, R. elegans sensu stricto is now considered to be sister to R. crepitans, the Clapper Rail sensu stricto, of eastern North America and Mexico (14).

Recommended Citation

Pickens, B. A. and B. Meanley (2018). King Rail (Rallus elegans), version 3.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.