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A photo of a King Rail (Rallus elegans)
King Rail

King Rail

Rallus elegans

The King Rail (Rallus elegans) is the largest North American rail, a waterbird of considerable size. It is characterized by a long bill with a gentle downward curve. The adult's plumage is a rich tapestry of brown on the back, transitioning to a rusty-brown on the face and breast, topped with a dark brown cap. A white throat and a lighter belly, with barred flanks, complete its striking appearance. The undertail coverts are white, which the male proudly displays during courtship rituals.

Identification Tips

When identifying the King Rail, look for the distinctive long bill and the coloration pattern of rusty-brown on the face and breast, with a darker cap. The white throat and barred flanks are also key features. Juveniles are downy with lighter brown on the head and darker brown on the back and wings.


The King Rail favors marshes as its breeding grounds, particularly in eastern North America.


This species is a resident along the southeastern coasts of the United States, while others migrate to the southern United States and Mexico. In Canada, they are found in southern Ontario.


The King Rail is diurnal, setting it apart from its smaller, nocturnal relatives. After nesting, an adult undergoes a complete molt and becomes flightless for nearly a month.

Song & Calls

The call of the King Rail is a low, repeated grunt, which can be transcribed as "kek-kek-kek."


Nests are constructed as raised platforms with marsh vegetation, concealed by a canopy to protect the eggs from aerial predators. The King Rail may interbreed with the Clapper Rail where their ranges overlap. It lays a clutch of 6 to 14 pale buff eggs with brown spotting, which are incubated by both parents for 21 to 23 days. The downy young are precocial but rely on their parents for food for up to six weeks post-hatching.

Diet and Feeding

The King Rail forages in shallow water, probing the mud for aquatic insects and crustaceans. Chicks are fed small arthropods by their parents, with males often offering food during courtship.

Conservation status

The King Rail is currently classified as Near Threatened. While still common in some coastal areas, interior populations have suffered declines due to habitat loss. In Michigan, it is a legally protected state endangered species.

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King Rail Fun Facts

Did you know?
An adult King Rail moults completely after breeding and is flightless for nearly a month while it grows a new set of feathers.

King Rails on Birda


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