Elusive To Impossible: The Future of the Black Rail

By Peter Kleinhenz

Few birds in the United States raise eyebrows like the black rail. In birding circles, mentioning a sighting of a black rail is akin to mentioning a successful summit of Mt. Everest in a climbing circle. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s certainly not something that typically occurs without an incredible amount of effort.

A black rail skulks through the marsh. Photo by USFWS

A black rail skulks through the marsh.
Photo by USFWS

Black rails, a dimunitive species reaching only 6 inches high and possessing terrifying red eyes, don’t have the visual attraction of, say, an oriole. But what they lack in beauty they make up for in habit. Most of their lives consist of squeezing through dense, grassy vegetation (ever heard “skinny as a rail”?) in the salt marshes or isolated inland marshes they call home. Almost strictly nocturnal, their behavior is the opposite of what makes a bird easy to find.

When birders seek these birds out, nothing is guaranteed. Most people visit known locales and play calls in the hopes of summoning the “Ki Ki Krr” response. For many, this is the only interaction with these species they ever have. Actually seeing one requires incredible luck. But even that slim opportunity may become much slimmer.

A recent report by the Center for Conservation Biology, and an article summarizing this research, suggests that black rails are disappearing…fast. The usual suspects of habitat loss, unbalanced ecosystems, and habits conducive to scarcity have limited the numbers of this species. But it’s climate change that’s pushing it over the edge.

Salt marsh habitat of the black rail in Florida

Salt marsh habitat of the black rail in Florida

Most black rails in the United States live out their lives in coastal salt marshes, such as those existing within St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Big Bend Wildlife Management Area. These habitats will be the first to go as the sea level continues to rise. And, when it does, the black rail will vanish.

All hope is not lost, however. The black rail currently sits in the company of the wolverine and Louisiana pine snake as a species very likely to be listed under the Endangered Species Act within the next few years. Of course, this is not assured. However, the attention even a proposed listing garners may alert the birding community that more land needs to be protected, more studies need to be completed, and more people need to become aware of this secretive species. Such efforts matter, whether any of us ever see one or not.