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What is a King Rail?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 17, 2024
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The king rail is a heavyset marsh bird that has a build reminiscent of a chicken. Found in freshwater marshes throughout areas of Central America and the Southeastern United States, the king rail population is under constant threat. The largest rail of North America, it is similar to the clapper rail and has been known to cross-breed with it.

With short legs, short tails, and compact bodies averaging between 15 and 19 inches (about 38 to 48 cm), these marsh birds are built like chickens. The king rail is a well-camouflaged bird in its native environment, with a mottled brown, olive and gray back, brown wings, black and white flank stripes, and a reddish-brown chest. On each side of the head there is a distinctive white or orange line that runs over each eye. Males and females are similar in appearance, and juvenile birds have similar coloring but non-distinct markings. Chicks are covered in black down.

Adults build their nests on the ground, usually in elevated clumps of vegetation along the waterline. After building their nests, birds molt so completely that they are unable to fly for almost an entire month. The courtship process of the king rail is a complicated one that involves the male providing the female with food. Once mates are chosen, between six and 14 pale brown eggs are laid. They hatch after about three weeks; chicks are able to walk within an hour of hatching and typically leave the nest after a single day.

King rails feed mainly from the water, where they find crayfish, small fish, and many types of bugs. When they find food on dry land, they will eat it after wetting it in their traditional hunting waters. Typically they forage in sheltered areas such as stands of reeds, where they are hidden from the view of predators. Their close proximity to freshwater marshes gives them convenient access to their food of choice, but also makes them vulnerable to changes in the conditions of wetlands. This contributes to their threatened status in the northern reaches of their location.

Alternate names for the king rail are the Gallina de agua, the rascon real, and the rale elegant. It is closely related to the Virginia rail and the clapper rail. The king rail is the largest of all the North American rails, a distinction that gives it its royal name.

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