Sakalava rail (Amaurornis olivieri)

French: Râle d'Olivier
GenusAmaurornis (1)
SizeLength: 19 cm (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Since its discovery in 1929, the rare and extremely shy Sakalava rail has been recorded on only a handful of occasions (2). This small rail is mostly dark slate-grey in colour, with chestnut brown wing and back feathers (2) (3). It has bright red eyes, a yellow bill and conspicuous reddish-pink legs. The juvenile differs from the adult bird in that its entire plumage is sooty brown and it has a black bill (3) (4).

The Sakalava rail is known from three widely separated areas of western lowland Madagascar (1) (2) (3).

This species is most frequently observed in the gaps between dense, tall vegetation, such as reeds, bul-rushes and sedges, bordering streams and lakes. These gaps are normally comprised of short, mixed, floating vegetation such as water-lilies, aquatic ferns, water-hyacinth, sedges and grasses (2). According to locals, the Sakalava rail confines itself to the reed beds during the dry season but occupies more open habitat during the wet season (3).

On the small number of occasions that the Sakalava rail has been recorded feeding, it was observed walking on top of floating vegetation, catching invertebrates from the water’s surface and the sub-surface plant roots. If disturbed, adult birds cease to feed and will climb the surrounding reeds to heights of around 1.5 metres, whilst the juveniles disappear amongst the bases of surrounding reed clumps.

Locals report that the Sakalava rail normally lays two clutches in a season. Nesting birds have been observed around March and the clutch size is probably two (2) (3).

Based on surveys conducted between 2003 and 2004, it is tentatively estimated that the Sakalava rail population numbers between 100 and 200 birds. For a species with so few individuals, the rapid degradation and destruction of Madagascar’s bio-diverse wetlands poses a very serious threat to its long-term survival. In Madagascar, human encroachment, and conversion of habitat for rice cultivation, is widely responsible for a massive reduction in the area of wetlands. For the Sakalava rail, the introduction of non-native fish and a decline in reed habitat, partially attributable to harvesting by humans, is likely to be having an additional negative impact (2). Fortunately, the Sakalava rail is considered too small for hunting and in some areas it is even traditionally taboo to collect its eggs (2) (3).

In January 2007, the Madagascar government passed legislation granting the protection of the Mahavavy-Kinkony Wetlands, a 300,000 hectare wildlife area, and home to all of western Madagascar’s wetland birds, including the Sakalava rail (5). Further to the statutory protection of such a large area of Sakalava rail habitat, it is hoped that in the near future a national conservation plan, specific to the species, will be established. For the development of such a plan, it is vital to gain a greater understanding of its ecology and distribution. Given that there are many areas with suitable habitat that have not yet been surveyed, there is some optimism that the Sakalava rail population may be larger than the current estimates suggest (2).

For further information on the conservation of the Sakalava rail see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2007)
  2. BirdLife International (October, 2008)
  3. Robertson, I. (2004) First-ever photographs of Sakalava Rail Amaurornis olivieri and first detailed observations since 1962. Bulletin of the African Bird Club, 11(1): 18 - 21.
  4. Sinclair, I. and Langrand, O. (2004) Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands: Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Reunion and the Comoros. Struik, Cape Town.
  5. BirdLife International (October, 2008)