Photo by Brian E. Small

On cold, wintery nights, when the dark skies are lit up by the twinkling stars, I am simply captivated. Some see the Big Dipper and Orion, but not me, no, I see a bird’s bottom. And not just any bird’s bottom, but the white-speckled, black bottom of the elusive, secretive black rail.

And though I’ve seen this stunning sky countless times, I’ve never actually seen a black rail.

The tiny black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) is a shy bird, only four to six inches in length, but very striking in appearance. It has a dark rear with white speckles on its back and rump, a grey chest, reddish brown neck, a black bill and red eyes.

The black rail is, you guessed it, in the rail family. Most birds in this family have strong legs and long toes, which are quite useful for standing and maintaining balance in wet, soft shifting surfaces such as wet sand and mud. They also have short, compact wings. There are eight species of rails that have been recorded in Indiana: American coot, black rail, common gallinule, king rail, purple gallinule, sora, Virginia rail, and yellow rail.

Black rails prefer dense grassy areas in fresh and brackish marshes, wet meadows and flooded grassy areas where it can feed on insects, snails and seeds. It is a year-round resident along the coast of Florida and Texas, as well as a few spots on the coast of California and the Colorado River. It is uncommon in the rest of its summer range that includes the east coast and the lush, grassland areas of the Midwest. Fortunately, the black rail has been seen during the spring and summer at Kankakee Sands, but not by many, and unfortunately not by me.

The black rail is known for being as secretive as a mouse. It is rarely seen in the open. Most often it is accidentally flushed from its perch, from which it darts off into nearby vegetation for cover.  

Due to its small size and secretive nature, knowing its call is a good way to “find” the bird. It is not likely that you will hear the black rail during the day. You are much more likely to hear it call at night in a in a nasal kee-kee-kerr, the last note lower than the first two.  When agitated, its call is a repetitive chirping ikk-ikk-ikkk-ikk-ikk-ikkk. Should you accidentally approach its nest, the black rail will attempt to shoo you away with this call.

Nests of the black rail are built on the ground, in a clump of vegetation higher than the surrounding water. The cup-shaped nest is made of plant material and often has a dome of woven material serving as a roof. Within the nest, six to eight eggs are laid, after which, both the male and the female incubate the eggs for approximately twenty days. Young black rails leave the nest within just one day of hatching!

The black rail is so elusive that even the best of scientists finds them to be a tricky subject matter. The Audubon Society reports that there is much about the black rail that has not been fully studied, such as the nesting behavior, the development of the young, the age at first flight, and even the current breeding range.  But one thing we do know is that the number of black rails is declining. They now have a conservation status of Near Threatened, which means that without conservation action to protect their habitat, black rails are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered. We are very encouraged that the restored wetlands and wet prairies of Kankakee Sands are providing suitable habitat for black rails.

As with all the glittering stars in the night sky, there is so much more to learn and understand about this secretive bird. I hope to one day see its speckled derriere in real life, instead of just in the night-time sky. But in the meantime, let’s reach for the stars as we work to protect the habitat that the black rail needs to survive.

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The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,400-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands.