Birds – Rails, Gallinules, Coots

(Family Rallidae)

Clapper Rail

(Rallus longirostris crepitans)

Called also: MARSH, OR MUD HEN; BIG RAIL; SALT-WATER MEADOW HEN

Length—14 to 16 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts pale olive varied with gray, each feather having a wide gray margin ; more grayish brown on wings and tail, and cinnamon brown on wing coverts. Line above eye and the throat white, merging into the grayish buff neck and breast ; sides and underneath brownish gray barred with white. Body much compressed. Bill longer than head, and yellowish brown, the same color as legs. Young fledgelings black.

Range—Atlantic and Gulf coasts of United States, nesting from Connecticut southward, and resident south of the Potomac.

Season-April to October, north of Washington.

Salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and grassy fields along the seacoast contain more of these little gray skulkers than the keenest eye suspects; and were it not for their incessant chattering, who would ever know they had come up from the south to spend the summer? At the nesting season there can be no noisier birds anywhere than these; the marshes echo with their ” long, rolling cry,” that is taken up and repeated by each member of the community, until the chorus attracts every gunner to the place. Immense numbers of the compressed, thin bodies, that often measure no more than an inch and a quarter through the breast, find their way to the city markets from the New Jersey salt meadows, after they have taken on a little fat in the wild oat fields. ” As thin as a rail ” is a suggestive saying, indeed, to the cook who has picked one.

To get a good look at these birds in their grassy retreats is no easy matter. Row a scow over the submerged grass at high tide as far as it will go, listen for the skulking clatterers, and if near by, plunge from the bow into the muddy meadow, and you may have the good fortune to flush a bird or two that rises fluttering just above the sedges, flies a few yards trailing its legs behind it, and drops into the grasses again before you can press the button of your camera. A rarer sight still is to see a clapper rail running, with head tilted downward and tail upward, in a ludicrous gait, threading in and out of the grassy maze. Standing on one leg, with the toes of the other foot curled in, is a favorite posture; or one may be detected climbing up the reeds to pick off the seeds at the top, clasping the stem with the help of its low, short, hind toes. A rail’s feet are wide spread because of long toes in front, that prevent the bird from sinking into the mud and scum it so lightly runs over. It can swim fairly well, but not fast. As might be expected in birds so shy, these be-come more active toward dusk, their favorite feeding hour, and certainly more noisy.

Not even to nest will a clapper rail go much beyond tide water. From six to twelve cream white eggs spotted with reddish brown are laid in a rude platform of reeds and finer grasses on the ground, where they must always be damp if not wet; yet who ever finds a mother rail keeping the eggs warm ?

The King Rail, the Red Breasted Rail, or Fresh Water Marsh Hen (Rallus elegans) differs from its more abundant salt water prototype chiefly in being larger and more brightly colored, and possessing a more musical voice. Olive brown, varied with black above; rich chestnut on the wing coverts; reddish cinnamon on breast that fades to white on the throat; sides and underneath dusky, barred with white, are features to be noted in distinguishing it from the grayish clapper. A marsh overgrown with sedges and drained by a sluggish fresh water stream makes the ideal feeding and nesting ground of the king rail from the southern and middle states northward to Ontario. In habits these two rails are closely related. Mr. Frank Chapman describes the king rail’s call as ” a loud, startling bup, bup, bup, bup, bup, uttered with increasing rapidity until the syllables were barely distinguishable, then ending somewhat as it began. The whole performance occupied about five seconds.” Of all impossible clews to the identification of a bird, that of its notes as written down differently in every book you pick up is the most hopeless to the novice without field practice. Nearly all the rails have a sort of tree toad rattle in addition to some other notes, which in the king rail’s case have a metallic, ringing quality, and that are perhaps most intelligibly written “ke-link-kink; kink-kink-kink.”