The yellow rail feeds on a variety of prey, including earthworms, small freshwater snails, crustaceans, spiders, and a range of insects and their larvae. During autumn and winter, it also feeds on seeds, such as those of sedges, rushes (Scleria), grasses (Setaria) and Polygonum species (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).
Although breeding male yellow rails frequently call at night, this species is usually active during the day. It typically forages in areas with shallow water concealed by dense vegetation, picking food from the ground, from vegetation or from the water. It will also take food from below the water surface, and sometimes feeds while swimming (2) (3) (5).
Yellow rails arrive at the breeding grounds from late April to May, and remain until September or October (2) (3) (5) (6). In the United States, the eggs are laid between May and July. Although the yellow rail is thought to be territorial, the ranges of breeding males overlap somewhat (2) (3) (5).
Both the male and female yellow rail may hollow out crude ‘scrapes’ in vegetation, but it is the female that completes the nest. The nest consists of a cup of fine sedge and grasses, and is usually placed beneath a canopy of dead vegetation, either on the ground or a short distance above it (2) (3) (5) (6). It may sometimes be suspended over shallow water (3) (6). One or more extra nests may also be built; these lack a canopy and are used as ‘brood’ nests, where the female may brood the chicks after they leave the nest in which they hatched (2) (3) (5) (6).
The yellow rail lays between 4 and 10 eggs, which are incubated by the female for 17 to 18 days (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). On hatching, the young chicks are covered in black down and have a bright pink beak, which becomes black as the chick grows (2) (3) (4) (5). The young leave the nest just a day or two after hatching (2) (3) (4) (5) (6), but are fed and brooded by the female, and possibly also by the male, for around a further three weeks (2) (3) (5). Young yellow rails can fly by about 35 days old. The yellow rail usually only raises one brood each season, although it may re-nest if the first clutch fails (2) (3) (5). This species probably starts to breeds at about a year old (3) (5).