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What is a Yellow Rail?

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  • Written By: A. Delgado
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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The yellow rail, or Coturnicops noveboracensis, is a small bird that behaves more like a small mammal. Yellow rails nest and search for food on the ground near water under the cover of vegetation. They rarely take to the air. The National Audubon Society estimated in 2010 that the bird's worldwide population in the wild was just 17,500. These yellowish-brown birds, which feed mainly on snails, are steadily losing their natural habitat.

Male and female yellow rails have an average weight of 1.8 ounces (51 grams) and reach an average length of 7.25 inches (around 18 cm). Their wingspans measure up to 11 inches (around 28 cm). The yellow rail is the second smallest species of rail in North America.

The yellow rail was named for its plumage, which forms a yellowish-brown pattern of stripes on most of the body. Their faces are dark brown with an olive or brown beak. The males’ beaks turn a yellowish hue during mating season. Yellow rails have white feathers on the underside of their rounded wings and on parts of their upper wings.

This elusive species of waterbird is found in eastern Canada and much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Their winter habitat reaches from coastal North Carolina to Florida and as far west as southern Texas. One isolated population lives in Klamath Basin, Oregon.

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Yellow rails live in marshes, wetlands and damp meadows. They primarily stick to areas with dead matter and newly grown grasses that provide cover. They seek shelter in saltwater marshes and hay fields during winter. The breeding season begins in late April and lasts through mid-May. Males call to females and mark their territories by vocalizing with metallic clicking noises and showing off their wings.

Males and females build grassy nests in areas with overhanging vegetation to keep their eggs hidden. Females lay between five and 10 eggs at a time. The cream and brown eggs hatch after an incubation period of around 23 days. Young yellow rails leave the nest when they’re about 2 days old and learn to fly after 35 days.

Yellow rails mainly feed during the day in shallow pools of water. Their diet consists of snails, small crustaceans, spiders and insects. If the birds are startled when feeding, they freeze in place, hide in the water or fly off.

Wildlife divisions in several states throughout the yellow rail’s range have listed the species as threatened or endangered as a result of habitat loss. This loss is most significant in the North Carolina and Florida wetland areas that the birds use in winter. Conservation programs have been established in many states to help prevent further loss.

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