Yellow rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis)

Also known as: American yellow rail, clicker, yellow crake
Synonyms: Fulica noveboracensis
GenusCoturnicops (1)
SizeLength: 16 - 19 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 28 - 32 cm (4)
Male weight: 52 - 68 g (2) (3)
Female weight: 41 - 61 cm (2) (3)

The yellow rail is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

North America’s second smallest rail species, the yellow rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) is a secretive waterbird that is difficult to see due to its habit of moving about beneath vegetation rather than flying (3) (4) (5) (6). The presence of the yellow rail is most easily revealed by the male’s distinctive call, which consists of a series of four or five metallic clicks. Usually given at night during the breeding season, it resembles the sound of two stones being tapped together (2) (3) (4) (5).

The yellow rail is well camouflaged, with largely buffy-yellow plumage, mottled with black and brown. The upperparts are buffy brown, streaked with dark brown and black and with narrow white bars, while the chest and face are buffy yellow, with a dark crown and a dark line through the eyes. The secondary feathers are white, giving the yellow rail an obvious white wing patch in flight. The belly and chin are white, and the flanks and undertail are dark brown or blackish, with buff and white bars (3) (4) (5). The tail is very short (4).

The male and female yellow rail are similar in appearance, but the male is usually slightly larger and heavier. For much of the year, the male’s short bill is dark olivaceous to black like the female’s, but it turns yellow during the breeding season (2) (3) (5). Both sexes have brown to greenish legs and feet (3) (5). Descriptions of the immature yellow rail conflict, with some reporting it to be darker and more spotted than the adult, while others report it to be paler (2) (3) (4) (5). Two subspecies of yellow rail are recognised, Coturnicops noveboracensis noveboracensis and Coturnicops noveboracensis goldmani, with the latter being larger and having darker upperparts (2) (3) (5).

In addition to the male’s characteristic call, both the male and female yellow rail produce a range of cackles, clunks and frog-like croaks during the breeding season. Squeaks and wheezes are also used during hostile encounters, and the female gives whines and moans to the chicks. The yellow rail chicks give ‘wee’ and ‘peep’ calls, while juveniles give ‘peeps’ and barks (2) (3) (5).

The yellow rail breeds locally in central and south-eastern Canada and the north-eastern United States (2) (3) (4) (5) (7). There is also an isolated breeding population in the northwest United States, in southern Oregon (2) (3) (5).

A migratory species, the yellow rail spends the winter in the southern and south-eastern United States, from the coast of North Carolina south to Florida, and west along the Gulf Coast as far as Texas (2) (3) (7). There are also scattered winter records of this species from Oregon south to the Californian coast (3) (5).

The subspecies C. n. goldmani is known only from central Mexico (3) (5) (7). However, it has not been recorded there since 1964 and its present status is unknown (2) (3) (5).

During the breeding season, the yellow rail typically inhabits the higher and drier margins of freshwater and brackish marshes, usually dominated by sedges and grasses. It also occurs in swampy meadows, sedge meadows dominated by Carex lasiocarpa, and occasionally wet, cut-over hay fields (2) (3) (5) (6).

This species prefers to breed in areas where the substrate remains saturated throughout the breeding season, and where there are up to 12 centimetres of standing water. The encroachment of woody vegetation such as willows (Salix) and birch (Betula pumila) can make the habitat unsuitable for the yellow rail (2) (3) (5).

In autumn and on migration, the yellow rail may be found in wet meadows, hay and grain fields, or on prairies (2) (3) (5). During the winter, it uses mainly coastal marshes and grasslands, preferring the drier parts of cordgrass (Spartina patens) marshes (2) (3) (5) (6).

Records of the subspecies C. n. goldmani are from wet meadows with bunch grass and from sedge and Typha marshes, at elevations of up to 2,500 metres (2) (3).

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).

Although the yellow rail is a widespread species and not currently considered at risk of extinction (7), its breeding range has decreased during the last century, particularly in the south (2) (3) (5) (6).

The main threats to the yellow rail are likely to be the drainage of wetlands and the loss of suitable wetland habitat due to the building of dykes and barriers. Grazing pressure may also affect vegetation height around marshlands, although mowing and periodic burning are likely to benefit the yellow rail by preventing woody vegetation from encroaching on its breeding areas (2) (3) (5). The manipulation of water levels on wildlife refuges to benefit migratory waterfowl could potentially have negative effects on the yellow rail (3).

The Mexican subspecies of the yellow rail, C. n. goldmani, is likely to have been affected by the draining of much of its habitat. It is not known whether this subspecies still survives in its former range (2) (3) (5).

The yellow rail is not a legal game bird anywhere in North America (3). It is listed as Threatened or Endangered in some U.S. states and as Vulnerable in Quebec (3) (4) (5).

There are no specific conservation measures known to be in place for the yellow rail. Due to its secretive nature, little is known about the population trends of this species (4), and it would therefore benefit from further survey work and more research into its habitat requirements, particularly on its winter range. Certain management practices, such as burning to remove woody vegetation, may improve the breeding habitat of the yellow rail, but more information is needed on appropriate management measures for its wintering habitats (5).

As the Mexican subspecies of the yellow rail has not been seen for several decades, research is needed to determine its current status (5).

Find out more about the yellow rail and its conservation:

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 (June, 2011)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Taylor, B. and van Perlo, B. (1998) Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  4. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Yellow rail (June, 2011)
  5. Bookhout, T.A. (1995) Yellow rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  6. Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  7. BirdLife International (June, 2011)