Eastern Black Rail

Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Native

  • Habitat

    Black rails live amongst the grasses of salt and freshwater marshes. They are very secretive and often walk or run through the grasses rather than fly.

  • Range

    Black rails can be found along the coasts of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia in the spring and summer. They live year-round along the more southern Atlantic coast and the Gulf Coast. They also have the potential to live farther inland throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. 

  • Diet

    Small invertebrates, insects, seeds

  • Status

    Threatened

The eastern black rail is a small, secretive marsh bird. It is approximately the size of a sparrow with black, white-spotted feathers and red eyes. 

Appearance

The eastern black rail is four to six inches long with a wingspan of up to 11 inches. It weighs approximately 1.2 ounces. The black rail is mostly gray to black with a black bill and red eyes. They have some brown feathers on their backs and white spots on their dark wing feathers. There is no significant size difference between males and females.

Feeding

Black rails likely eat mostly small invertebrates and seeds, but because they are rarely seen, little is known about their feeding habits. 

Predators

The black rail may be preyed on by raccoons, snakes and raptors. However, there are larger threats to the black rail from habitat loss and climate change.

Flight

The black rail often gets around the marsh by walking or running through the grasses rather than flying. It is rarely seen in flight. 

Voice

The black rail makes a distinctive “ki-ki-kerrrr” call.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Black rails build their nests on the ground, making a cup, canopy and entrance ramp out of woven marsh plants. They usually lay six to eight white, brown-spotted eggs in June or July and both the male and female take turns incubating them for the next 2.5 to three weeks. The chicks have dark brown eyes when they are first born that turn to olive at around four weeks, then amber at eight weeks, then finally to red at about three months.

Did You Know?

  • The black rail is the smallest of all North American rails.
  • The eastern black rail is listed as threatened or endangered in Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia.
  • The black rail is currently proposed for listing as a federally threatened species.
  • Sea level rise, changes in precipitation and rising temperatures are causing the loss of marsh habitat black rails need to survive.
  • Human impacts, like habitat fragmentation, and invasive species pose a conservation challenge for black rail populations.

Sources and Additional Information

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Native

  • Habitat

    Black rails live amongst the grasses of salt and freshwater marshes. They are very secretive and often walk or run through the grasses rather than fly.

  • Range

    Black rails can be found along the coasts of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia in the spring and summer. They live year-round along the more southern Atlantic coast and the Gulf Coast. They also have the potential to live farther inland throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. 

  • Diet

    Small invertebrates, insects, seeds

  • Status

    Threatened