BLACK RAIL  Laterallus jamaicensisLaterallus jamaicensis

The small, secretive Black Rail is a difficult bird for atlasers to find and researches to study, hence it is not surprising that its distribution as well as its life history are poorly known. The preferred habitats have been fragmented and degraded by human activity, making survival difficult (Eddleman et al. 1994).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work seasons of the TBBA project, atlasers found one probable and one possible breeding site in latilong 28096 in the Coastal Prairies region (see the region map in Lockwood and Freeman [2004]). These authors describe this rail as a resident of the upper and central coast. In Oklahoma, atlasers did not find any breeding evidence for Black Rails although breeding had been recorded in the 1970s (Reinking 2004).

In other areas Black Rails breed along the Atlantic, Gulf and southern California casts of the United States  and in the interior of this country at scattered locations around the Great Lakes, in the drainage area of the Mississippi River and its tributaries and along the lower Colorado River. These rails are resident at scattered sites in Mexico, Central America, western South America  and the Greater Antilles. Populations in the northern United States move south in winter (Eddleman et al. 1994,  Howell and Webb 1995, Am. Ornithol. Union 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Black Rails are year-round residents along the upper and central Texas coast and rare migrants in the eastern third of the state. Eggs have been collected May 9 and June 5 in Texas (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004). In Arizona the territorial calls of these rails are heard most frequently from late February through June (Corman 2005). In the eastern United States complete egg clutches have been found from May 9 to August 16 with the peak in late June  (Eddleman et al. 1994),

BREEDING HABITAT. In Texas Black Rails are usually found in saltgrass (Spartina sp.) marshes (Oberholser 1974) while in Arizona these rails are found in emergent vegetation bordering freshwater lakes, ponds and marshes near the lower Colorado River (Corman 2005). Nests are placed in a well-concealed spot in the center of clumps of vegetation, at or near the upper limits of marsh plants. Here the female weaves  a deep, loose bowl of fine grasses with a canopy of vegetation woven over the top. The nest with a side opening resembles the nests of meadowlarks. The outside diameter is about 13 cm (5 in; range 11–15 cm), inside diameter 7.4 cm (3 in; range 7–8); cup  depth  4.4 cm (1.8 in; range 3–7 cm). Nests with a canopy have a 5 cm (2 in) opening on  one side. In the nest the female usually lays 6 (range 4-13) buffy white or pinkish white eggs, marked with fine brown dots. The eggs are incubated  by both sexes for 19-20 days. The young birds require brooding by a parent for the  first few days after hatching (Harrison 1979, Eddleman et al. 1994).

STATUS. Black Rails are rare to locally uncommon residents of the upper and central Texas coast (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004). Nationally populations declined between the 1920s and 1970s due primarily to habitat loss and degradation. The western population in California, Arizona and Baja California is a candidate for Threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (Eddleman et al. 1994). The future of Black Rails in Texas is still threatened by these factors as well as the threats of more frequent major hurricanes and rising sea levels.

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2008)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

American Ornithologists’ Union. 1998. Checklist of North American birds, 7th ed. Am, Ornithol. Union, Washington, DC.

Corman, T. E. 2005. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). In Arizona breeding bird atlas. pp. 160-161 (T. E. Corman and C. Wise-Gervais, eds.), University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Eddleman, W. R., R. E. Flores and M. Legare. 1994. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from:

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, New York.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Reinking, D. L. 2004. Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). In Oklahoma breeding bird atlas, pp. 124-125 (D. L. Reinking, ed.). University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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