King Rail

Rallus elegans
King Rail specimens on display in the exhibit "Birds of D.C."

A large (15-19 inches) rail, the King Rail is most easily identified by its mottled brown back, rusty neck, streaked flanks, and dark brown face patch near the eye. This species may be separated from the similarly-colored Virginia Rail (Rallus limnicola) by that species’ much smaller size, and from the similarly-sized Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris) by that species’ paler body and grayer face. Male and female King Rails are similar to one another in all seasons. The King Rail breeds across much of the eastern United States and southern Canada, being absent only from New England, the Appalachian Mountains, and the upper Midwest. Northerly-breeding populations migrate south to the coastal southeast in winter, whereas southern- and coastal-breeding populations are non-migratory. Other non-migratory populations exist in Cuba and central Mexico. King Rails breed in a variety of marshland habitats in areas of fresh or brackish water, utilizing similar habitat types during the winter. As this species avoids pure saltwater, it experiences limited competition with the Clapper Rail, which favors saltwater marshes. King Rails primarily eat small invertebrates, such as insects and crustaceans. In appropriate habitat, King Rails may be seen wading in shallow water while foraging for food on the submerged bank. If these birds are more hidden, perhaps beneath tall marsh grasses, it may still be possible to hear their call, a grating “chuck” repeated many times in succession. King Rails are primarily active during the day, although they may be heard calling at night.

DC Information

Fairly common resident in brackish and freshwater marshes in tidewater areas of the Eastern Shore. Breeds from early May to mid-August. Sexes are similar.

Specimen Information

The first record is for the adult on the left; the second is for the juvenile at the lower right.
Date:  12/2/1914
Collected By:  WT Lindsay
Locality:  Bryan's Point, MD
Sex:  Not recorded
Catalog ID:  236691
Date:  6/23/1893
Collected By:  Wm Palmer
Locality:  Kidwell Flats nr Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC
Sex:  Male pullet (downy young)
Catalog ID:  237999

Distribution Map

distribution map for this species