King Rail (Rallus elegans)

King Rail Photo by Michael Sanders, Michigan Natural Features Inventory

Life History & Michigan History

The king rail is a rarely seen marsh bird since Michigan lies on the northern edge of its breeding range. Historically the breeding range in Michigan extended south of a line from Bay City to Muskegon. The king rail was once abundant in the marshes along the western shore of Lake Erie. It was so abundant, it is estimated that these marshes held the largest population in the north central states. Some of the state's major breeding areas still occur in the St. Clair Flats River delta.

While it may be difficult to see among the thick marsh vegetation, the king rail's grunt-like jupe-jupe-jupe is easily recognized. One of the more interesting characteristics of this bird is its thin width, a perfect adaptation for moving through heavy cattail vegetation. The king rail is the largest of the rail family in North America. This rail has rust-colored feathers with a long bill. Its sides are heavily barred-distinguishing this bird from its smaller relative, the Virginia rail.

During courtship, the males strut, holding their tails upright. Males select a nest site and also construct the nest. Chicks will hatch from eggs after about three weeks of incubation. The chicks are precocial. This means they are capable of walking and feeding on their own shortly after hatching. The young grow quickly on a rail diet of small crustaceans and aquatic insects.

The king rail is currently listed as an endangered species in Michigan. Declines have been primarily caused by loss of extensive sedge and cattail marshes. There have been additional concerns over impacts of pesticide residues that may be limiting recolonization of rails into suitable habitat. Keeping this rare bird as part of Michigan habitat will require continued protection of wetlands as well as research into possible pesticide contamination.

Non-DNR Links

Identification Tips & More(USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)