King Rail

Rallus elegans Audubon, 1834

King Rail
Jim Rathert

Aves (Birds)
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinnules, and Coots)
State Protection
Listed as Threatened by New York State: likely to become Endangered in the foreseeable future. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act implements various treaties and conventions between the U. S. and Canada, Japan, Mexico and the former Soviet Union for the protection of migratory birds. Under this Act, taking, killing, or possessing migratory birds, including nests or eggs, is unlawful unless specifically permitted by other regulations.
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled in New York - Especially vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to extreme rarity or other factors; typically 5 or fewer populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, very few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or very steep declines. (A migratory animal which occurs in New York only during the breeding season.)
Global Conservation Status Rank
Apparently Secure globally - Uncommon in the world but not rare; usually widespread, but may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.


Did you know?

John James Audubon first called the King Rail the Freshwater Marsh Hen because of its preference for freshwater marshes (Meanly 1969).

State Ranking Justification

A rapid decline of King Rail populations has been noted in the northern portion of their range including in New York State where the species is considered a rare breeder. Habitat loss and degradation are the main reasons for the decline. Currently there are 19 known breeding locations, mostly in the western and central portions of the state, with two records from southern Westchester County (New York State Natural Heritage Program 2017). There have also been several winter sightings in the central and western portions of the state. King Rails were observed nesting on Long Island in the early to middle 1900s but have not been observed nesting there during recent surveys, although several recent sightings have occurred during the winter (Hamilton 1925a, b, Kuerzi 1926, Gochfeld 1975, Levine 1998, New York State Breeding Bird Atlas 1985 and 2005).

Short-term Trends

Over the past 30 years, the King Rail has been rapidly declining in the northern part of its range, particularly in New York where it is at the northern limit of its range (Levine 1998, Sauer et al. 2007). Very few breeding records are reported annually. A comparison of data from the first New York Breeding Bird Atlas of 1980-1985 with the second atlas of 2000-2005 shows a slight increase in the number of atlas blocks (two to four respectively) reporting probable breeding King Rails, which could be explained by more intensive searches for this species. It is generally overlooked in surveys because of its secretive nature.

Long-term Trends

During the early half of the 1900s, King Rails were fairly common, especially in the Midwest (Eddleman et al 1988, Meanly 1992). Now they are considered rare in several states and restricted to pockets of emergent marshes throughout their range. Wetland habitat loss is the likely cause for this decline.

Conservation and Management


Wetland habitat loss, degradation, and drainage as a result of agricultural practices and development are the most critical threats for the King Rail, followed by accidental take in furbearer traps, predation, and striking manmade objects during migration. The King Rail is a game bird but is rarely hunted and the effects of hunting on populations is largely unknown. In states where it is severely threatened, including New York, the season is closed (Meanly 1969, 1992, Eddleman et al. 1988).

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Manage waterfowl areas that have known king rail nesting sites in ways that are compatible with rail species by maximizing cover for nesting. Avoid altering natural features that could be potential nesting habitat. Remove invasive species such as purple loosestrife if it is severely degrading the habitat. Wetland draining in the northern range, if necessary, should occur before nest establishment. Different areas of wetlands where King Rails are known to nest should be flooded or drained in different years to maintain optimal habitat (Eddleman et al. 1988).

Research Needs

Additional research is needed on population dynamics and the effects of land management practices on King Rails, specifically in relation to waterfowl management. More refined census techniques with careful documentation of breeding is a high priority. Determination of winter status and distribution is also needed (Eddleman et al. 1988).



During the breeding season, the King Rail inhabits fresh and brackish marshes in the southwestern and southeastern portions of the state that are fairly shallow (0-25 cm of water) and have well developed areas of emergent vegetation. During the winter months, King Rails can be spotted in the coastal salt marshes in the lower Hudson Valley and around Long Island (Eddleman et al. 1988, Levine 1998).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Freshwater intertidal mudflats (guide)
    A sparsely vegetated community characterized by low rosette-leaved aquatics. This community occurs on exposed intertidal mudflats where the water is fresh (salinity less than 0.5 ppt). This community is best developed where mudflats are nearly level so that broad expanses are exposed at low tide. The plants are completely submerged in 0.9 to 1.2 m (3 to 4 ft) of water at high tide and they are usually coated with mud.
  • Freshwater intertidal shore (guide)
    A community of the intertidal gravelly or rocky shores of freshwater tidal rivers and creeks, sometimes occurring at the base of cliffs. The vegetation may be very sparse.
  • Freshwater tidal marsh (guide)
    A marsh community that occurs in shallow bays, shoals, and at the mouth of tributaries of large tidal river systems, where the water is usually fresh (salinity less than 0.5 ppt), and less than 2 m (6 ft) deep at high tide. Typically there are two zones in a freshwater tidal marsh: a low-elevation area dominated by short, broadleaf emergents bordering mudflats or open water, and a slightly higher-elevation area dominated by tall grass-like plants.
  • Freshwater tidal swamp (guide)
    A forested or shrub-dominated tidal wetland that occurs in lowlands along large river systems characterized by gentle slope gradients coupled with tidal influence over considerable distances. The swamp substrate is always wet and is subject to semidiurnal flooding by fresh tidal water (salinity less than 0.5 ppt).
  • Inland salt marsh* (guide)
    A wetland that occurs on saline mudflats associated with inland salt springs. The mucky substrate is permanently saturated and seasonally flooded. Plant cover is sparse and the number of different kinds of plants is relatively low.
  • Shallow emergent marsh (guide)
    A marsh meadow community that occurs on soils that are permanently saturated and seasonally flooded. This marsh is better drained than a deep emergent marsh; water depths may range from 6 in to 3.3 ft (15 cm to 1 m) during flood stages, but the water level usually drops by mid to late summer and the soil is exposed during an average year.
  • Tidal river* (guide)
    The aquatic community of a river under the influence of daily lunar tides. We restrict this community to the continuously flooded portions of the river where plants do not grow out of the water. A deepwater zone has depths averaging more than 2 m (6 ft) at low tide. Salinities at any one place in the river may fluctuate as the tides flow in and out.

* probable association but not confirmed.

Associated Species

  • Sora (Porzana carolina)
  • Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans)
  • Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola)


New York State Distribution

New York is the northern limit of the King Rail's range. Now and historically, King Rails are considered to be a very uncommon breeder in the state. Scattered breeding has been reported from extensive marshes in western New York, the Hudson River Valley, and Long Island. During the winter, King Rails have been reported from several localities on Long Island. Most of the reports have been from the coastal areas where specimens have been taken from muskrat traps set in salt marshes. There have also been few reports of wintering King Rails from central and western New York (Hamilton 1925a,b, Kuerzi 1926, Levine 1998).

Global Distribution

King Rails breed locally from Kansas, eastern Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota east across the northern United States and southern Ontario to southern New England, south to southern Texas, southern Louisiana, central Mississippi, central Alabama and southern Florida; Cuba; and the interior of Mexico. The greatest densities occur in the Atlantic and Gulf coast marshes, and in the rice belts of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas (Meanley 1969). The King Rail winters along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from Mexico to New York and in the lower Mississippi Valley (Meanly 1969, 1992).

Best Places to See

  • Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (Seneca County)
  • Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
  • Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area (Niagara County)
  • Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area
  • Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area (Clinton County)
  • Wickham Marsh Wildlife Management Area (Essex County)

Identification Comments

Identifying Characteristics

The King Rail is a large (15-19 inches), chicken-sized rail with a slightly down-curved bill. Its wingspan is approximately 20 inches and it weighs between 10 and 13 ounces. It has tawny edges on the black-centered back feathers and tawny wing coverts. The head is slate colored with brown or grayish cheeks and buffy eyebrows. The underparts are cinnamon and the flanks are strongly barred black and white. Juveniles are darker above and paler below. The nest has been described as a round, elevated platform with a saucer-shaped depression. It usually has a round or cone-shaped canopy and a ramp. The eggs are pale buff with brown spots or blotches. King Rails have a distinctive call of a series of fewer than 10 kek-kek-kek notes that are fairly evenly spaced (Meanley 1969, 1992).


The King Rail is a very secretive bird, creating well-concealed nests in the shallow parts of marshes on tussoks or clumps of grass. Between 9 and 14 eggs are laid during May and early August with incubation lasting 21-23 days. Both parents tend to the young. King Rails aggressively defend their nests and will chase away any species that comes close. They become solitary after the breeding season and prefer to migrate alone at night (Meanly 1969, 1992).


The majority of the King Rail diet consists of crustateans and aquatic insects but various grains and seeds are also consumed, especially in winter (Meanly 1969).

Best Time to See

King Rails begin to migrate to their breeding grounds in April, with courtship and egg laying occurring in late April to mid-July. The eggs hatch between June and early August. Non-resident birds (in the northern portion of the range) begin their migration to wintering areas in September. King Rails seen during the winter in New York may be local year-round residents (Andrle et al. 1988, Meanly 1992, Levine 1998).

  • Active
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find King Rail active and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans)
    The King Rail and Clapper Rail are almost identical in appearance and vocalization, with the Clapper Rail being slightly smaller and more grayish in color on top than the King Rail. Both species have been known to occur in in the same breeding areas and may hybridize with each other (Meanly 1969, Levine 1998).

King Rail Images


King Rail
Rallus elegans Audubon, 1834

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Aves (Birds)
        • Order Gruiformes (Rails and Cranes)
          • Family Rallidae (Rails, Gallinnules, and Coots)

Additional Resources


American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). 1983. Check-list of North American Birds, 6th edition. Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas. 877 pp.

Andrle, Robert F. and Janet R. Carroll, editors. 1988. The atlas of breeding birds in New York State. Cornell University Press. 551 pp.

Brewer, R., G.A. McPeek, and R.J. Adams, Jr. 1991. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, Michigan. xvii + 594 pp.

Bull, John. 1974. Birds of New York State. Doubleday, Garden City, New York. 655 pp.

Drennan, Susan R. 1986. 86th Christmas bird count. American Birds 40(4):575-1117.

Eddleman, W. R., F. L. Knopf, B. Meanley, F. A. Reid, and R. Zembal. 1988. Conservation of North American rallids. Wilson Bulletin 100:458-475.

Gochfeld, M. 1975. A review of the status of the king rail, Rallus elegans, in the metropolitan New York area and rail vocalizations. Engelhardtia. 6 (2):27-29.

Hamilton, W.J. 1925a. King rail nesting on Long Island, New York. The Auk. 42(1):127-128.

Hamilton, W.J. 1925b. King rail wintering on Long Island. The Auk. 42(2):266.

Harrison, C. 1978. A Field Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds. Collins, Cleveland, Ohio.

Kuerzi, J.F. 1926. Occurrence of king rail about New York City. The Auk. 43(2):234.

Levine, E. 1998. Bull's birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY.

McGowan, K.J. and K. Corwin, eds. 2008. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State: 2000-2005. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. 688 pp.

Meanley, B. 1969. Natural history of the king rail. NorthAm. Fauna 67:1-108.

Meanley, B. 1992. King Rail, Rallus elegans. In the Birds of North America, No. 3 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, editors). Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA; and American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, DC. 12 pages.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

New York State Breeding Bird Atlas. 1985. Final breeding bird distribution maps, 1980-1985. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Wildlife Resources Center. Delmar, NY.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Checklist of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of New York State, including their protective status. Nongame Unit, Wildlife Resources Center, Delmar, NY.

Ripley, S. D. 1977. Rails of the world. M.F. Feheley Publishers, Ltd., Toronto. 406 pp. [publication by same name published by Smithsonian 1984; same?]

Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2007. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2006. Version 10.13.2007. US Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. xxiv + 1111 pp.

Terres, J. K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: July 1, 2019

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Rallus elegans. Available from: Accessed May 26, 2024.