Species Profile

Yellow Rail

Scientific Name: Coturnicops noveboracensis
Taxonomy Group: Birds
Range: Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick
Last COSEWIC Assessment: November 2009
Last COSEWIC Designation: Special Concern
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern


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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Yellow Rail

Yellow Rail Photo 1

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Description

The minute size, buffy plumage with black and white markings, very short tail, light eyebrow, and small bill of the Yellow Rail are reminiscent of a quail. It is one of the smallest rails in the world, weighing only 60 g (females slightly less), and measuring 15-19 cm in length. A white wing patch is visible in flight. As in all rails, the body is laterally compressed, and the toes are long, adapted for maneuvering through aquatic vegetation.

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Distribution and Population

Except for a very small area in Mexico where a few birds may still breed, the Yellow Rail breeds exclusively in Canada and the northern U.S. Its breeding distribution appears to be quite local and disjunct. It winters in the U.S., near the east coast from North Carolina to eastern Texas. The Canadian breeding range includes the Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories, eastern Alberta, central Saskatchewan, most of Manitoba and Ontario, the southern half of Quebec, all of New Brunswick, and northern Nova Scotia. There are thought to be roughly a few thousand pairs of Yellow Rails breeding in the Hudson/James Bay region, and another roughly 2000 pairs in the rest of Canada (1998 estimates). Habitat availability has declined and is still declining throughout its southern breeding range and relatively small wintering range. In certain parts of the Hudson/James Bay region, habitat may be declining as a result of habitat degradation by Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens).

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Habitat

Nesting Yellow Rails are typically found in marshes dominated by sedges, true grasses, and rushes, where there is little or no standing water (generally 0-12 cm water depth), and where the substrate remains saturated throughout the summer. They can be found in damp fields and meadows, on the floodplains of rivers and streams, in the herbaceous vegetation of bogs, and at the upper levels (drier margins) of estuarine and salt marshes. Nesting habitats usually have a dry mat of dead vegetation from previous growing seasons. A greater diversity of habitat types is used during migration and winter than during the breeding season. In winter, the rails are known to use coastal wetlands and rice fields.

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Biology

Yellow Rails probably start breeding when they are a year old. Pair formation likely occurs on the breeding grounds. Males in the wild may breed successively with two or more females, as observed in captivity. Females have only one brood per season, but they may renest if the first clutch of eggs is not successful. The nest is a crude scrape in the vegetation, on the ground or just a few centimetres above it, and is typically covered with a concealing canopy of dead vegetation. The 7-10 eggs are laid a day apart. Once the clutch is complete, the female incubates the eggs until they hatch some 17-18 days later. Hatching is synchronous (all eggs hatch at about the same time), and within a few hours the semiprecocial young can stand. Hatching success is likely very high. Two days after hatching, the entire brood follows the hen away from the nest, at five days of age the young can feed themselves, and at 35 days of age they are capable of flying. Adults eat invertebrates and seeds; the diet of chicks is unknown.

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Threats

The loss and degradation of wetlands due to agricultural and human development is the greatest threat to this species throughout its breeding range. On the wintering grounds, habitat loss has been so extensive that the wintering range may no longer be contiguous, and the rails are becoming largely restricted to a narrow band of coastline. Coastal marshes are threatened throughout the Gulf states.

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Protection

Federal Protection

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The Yellow Rail is protected by the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. Under this Act, it is prohibited to kill, harm, or collect adults, young, and eggs.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

8 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) in Canada (2001)

    The Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) resembles a week-old chicken. Its minute size, buffy plumage with black and white markings, very short tail, light eyebrow, and small bill are reminiscent of a quail; hence its genus name Coturnicops, meaning “that looks like a quail”. It is one of the smallest rails in the world, weighing only 60 g (females weigh slightly less) and measuring 15-19 cm, only slightly longer than a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The tips of the secondary remiges are white, forming a white wing patch that is visible in flight. As in all rails, the body is laterally compressed, and the long toes are used to maneuver through the aquatic vegetation. Adult and young Yellow Rails can sometimes be confused with Soras (Porzana carolina), and the two species’ breeding ranges overlap considerably in Canada. However, adult Soras have a black face and throat and a grey breast. Also, adults and young have longitudinal stripes on the back, in contrast to the Yellow Rail’s transversal stripes. In addition, the absence of a white wing patch in adult and young Soras is an excellent way of distinguishing the two species in flight.
  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail Coturnicops noveboracensis in Canada (2010)

    The Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) is a small, quail-like, yellowish brown rail most easily distinguished from other rails by its buff and black striped back and white wing patches. It is highly secretive, and most often detected by its call, a patterned tic-tic, tic-tic-tic that is repeated at night for many minutes at a time.

COSEWIC Assessments

  • COSEWIC Assessment on the Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) in Canada (2001)

    Designated Special Concern in April 1999. Status re-examined and confirmed in November 2001. Last assessment based on an existing status report.
  • COSEWIC Assessment Summary and Status Report: Yellow Rail Coturnicops noveboracensis (2010)

    Assessment Summary – November 2009 Common name Yellow Rail Scientific name Coturnicops noveboracensis Status Special Concern Reason for designation Relatively little is known about this small, secretive rail. It is primarily restricted to shallow, dense, grassy marshes and wet meadows. Most of its breeding range (about 90%) is in Canada. It is relatively uncommon in most areas; populations are most widespread and common in coastal areas of Hudson and James Bay in northern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. It winters in shallow marshes that occur in a narrow band extending from Texas to the Carolinas. The species is close to meeting some criteria for Threatened status because of its relatively small population size, compressed wintering range, ongoing threats to breeding and wintering wetland habitats, and evidence for local declines in several parts of its breeding range. Occurrence Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick Status history Designated Special Concern in April 1999. Status re-examined and confirmed in November 2001 and in November 2009. Please note that the related COSEWIC Status Report is available below in PDF format. You will be asked to provide your e-mail address then you will receive a link to download the publication. After processing, your email address is not retained in any way and is automatically discarded by our system.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Yellow Rail (2010)

    Relatively little is known about this small, secretive rail. It is primarily restricted to shallow, dense, grassy marshes and wet meadows. Most of its breeding range (about 90%) is in Canada. It is relatively uncommon in most areas; populations are most widespread and common in coastal areas of Hudson and James Bay in northern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. It winters in shallow marshes that occur in a narrow band extending from Texas to the Carolinas. The species is close to meeting some criteria for Threatened status because of its relatively small population size, compressed wintering range, ongoing threats to breeding and wintering wetland habitats, and evidence for local declines in several parts of its breeding range.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) in Canada (2013)

    The Minister of the Environment is the competent minister for the conservation of the Yellow Rail and has prepared this management plan, as per section 65 of SARA. The plan has been prepared in cooperation with the provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia as well as the Northwest Territories, the Tlicho Government and the Wek’èezhìi Renewable Resources Board of the Northwest Territories.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2010 (2010)

    Under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to “assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species”. During the past year, COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings and reviewed the status of 79 wildlife species (species, subspecies, populations). During the meeting of November 2009, COSEWIC assessed or reviewed the classification of the status of 28 wildlife species. COSEWIC assessed or reviewed the classification of an additional 51 wildlife species (species, subspecies and populations) during their April 2010 meeting. For species already found on Schedule 1 of SARA, the classification of 32 species was reviewed by COSEWIC and the status of the wildlife species was confirmed to be in the same category (extirpated - no longer found in the wild in Canada but occurring elsewhere, endangered, threatened or of special concern). The wildlife species assessment results for the 2009-2010 reporting period include the following: Extirpated: 6 Endangered: 39 Threatened: 16 Special Concern: 17 Data Deficient: 1 This report transmits to the Minister the status of 46 species newly classified as extirpated, endangered, threatened or of special concern, fulfilling COSEWIC’s obligations under SARA Section 24 and 25. A full detailed summary of the assessment for each species and the reason for the designation can be found in Appendix I of the attached report. Since its inception, COSEWIC has assessed 602 wildlife species in various risk categories, including 262 Endangered, 151 Threatened, 166 Special Concern and 23 Extirpated. In addition, 13 wildlife species have been assessed as Extinct. Also, to date, 46 wildlife species have been identified by COSEWIC as Data Deficient and 166 wildlife species were assessed as Not at Risk. This year has been a particularly productive year for COSEWIC’s Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) Subcommittee. In April 2010 COSEWIC approved the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Process and Protocol Guidelines, providing clear and agreed principles for the gathering of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge to carry out COSEWIC functions as required under Section 15(2) of SARA (See Appendix III of the attached report). We are grateful for the rich and enthusiastic contribution made by community elders and experts in helping the ATK Subcommittee prepare the ATK protocols.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: Terrestrial Species – November 2010 (2010)

    As part of its strategy for protecting wildlife species at risk, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Please submit your comments by February 4, 2011 for species undergoing normal consultations and by February 4, 2012 for species undergoing extended consultations.