Black Rail, Peter LaTourrette

BIRD OF THE WEEK: 9/19/2014 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Laterallus jamaicensis
POPULATION: 25,000
TREND: Decreasing
HABITAT: Fresh and saline marshes and wet meadors; very local distribution throughout the Americas and Caribbean

The tiny, red-eyed Black Rail is only the size of a sparrow and is the smallest rail in North America. Like its South American relative, the Junin Rail, it is as elusive as a mouse, skulking and scurrying under the cover of dense marsh vegetation and rarely taking flight.

Despite their small size, Black Rails are fiercely territorial during the mating season and call loudly and frequently with a distinctive three-noted "kickee-doo."

(Above: Black Rail recorded by Steve Hampton, XC380363. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/380363. Recorded at Bridgeway Island Pond, West Sacramento, Yolo County, Calif.)

The Black Rail population has been declining steeply over the last 10-20 years, likely due to increasing development in coastal areas, which has caused habitat loss and degradation of suitable breeding areas.

They are also vulnerable to nest predators such as raccoons, cats, and rats. Invasive plants, such as Phragmites, crowd out native marsh vegetation and result in a further loss of habitat. The biggest threat to Black Rail may be climate change; sea level rise could quickly swamp its low-lying habitat.

Despite its apparently low population, the Black Rail is not yet protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is included on ABC's Watch List as a Red list species (of highest conservation concern) and was proposed for listing under the ESA in October 2018.

Population surveys are urgently needed to determine the actual population size and locations of marshes with healthy populations of this rail.

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