The members of this family form a relatively compact group of small or medium-sized wading or swimming birds, distinguished among other characters by the extreme narrowness or compression of the body. They have rather long necks, small heads, and short, rounded, concave wings, while the legs are long and strong, as are the feet. They are not strong flyers, but depend rather upon their legs for escaping danger. The plumage is rather loose and “hairy,” and habitual disuse of the wings has resulted in the loss of the power of flight in a number of cases, and as a result several species have actually become extinct within comparatively recent times, and many others seem likely to meet the same fate at no distant day. The Rails spend their lives largely in marshes, their slender bodies permitting them to thread their way among the closest reeds and rushes with astonishing rapidity. While not exactly gregarious, community of tastes and wants brings them together in the marshes, often in immense numbers. The Gallinules are more frequently seen along the borders of the marshes, while the Coots frequent the water much after the manner of Ducks, and incline to go in flocks.
This family embraces about fifty genera and one hundred and eighty species, and is widely distributed throughout the globe, being, however, most abundant in the tropics, North America having only about fifteen forms. It is clearly a family of ancient origin, since numerous fossil species are known, the oldest being from the upper Eocene beds of France. The family is sometimes divided into three subfamilies, the first of which embraces the Rails proper, while in the others are included the Gallinules and Coots respectively. As it will be impossible in the space at command to describe them all, a few of the typical forms may be selected from each group.