Rails, Gallinules and Coots (Rallidae)
The taxonomic order GRUIFORMES (pronounced groo-ih-FOR-meez) is composed of six bird families including the legendary cranes, the odd Sunbittern, snail-eating Limpkin, and the rails.
Rails, gallinules and coots are placed in the Rallidae (pronounced RAHL-ih-dee) family, a large group of one hundred and thirty species in thirty-one genera found on all continents and many islands except for Antarctica.
Twenty-nine species of rails, gallinules and coots in fourteen genera have been identified in North America. Among these are the duck-like coots, colorful gallinules, and the furtive rails.
Rallidae are known for being secretive birds of wetlands, especially marshes. They are also known for being very difficult to see, the Yellow Rail and Black Rail notably so.
Rails are small to medium sized birds with short tails, rather short necks and short wings. Some have laterally compressed bodies adapted for navigating the thick vegetation of marshes. Bill shape varies from short and stout in the case of coots and gallinules and a few rail species such as the Sora, to longish and thin as in the Virginia Rail and related species. Depending on the species, their legs can be short or long but all have long toes (which are lobed in the aquatic coots).
Rails, gallinules and coots demonstrate a wide range of colors and plumages. The most colorful are some species of gallinules that have purple and iridescent green plumage. Like some rail species, they also show bright red in the bill. The bill color of rails can also be black or yellow, or chalky white as shown by some coots. Coots also have the dullest plumages; plain slate-gray and black. Black and grays are also found in the plumages of other rails that might not be brightly colored but are beautifully patterned with barring and stripes of these colors as well as various shades of brown.
Members of the Rallidae are found in most wetlands habitats in the United States and Canada. Although the coots occur in the open water of lakes and ponds, other rails are restricted to the dense vegetation of marshes and wet meadows. Freshwater marshes are frequented by gallinules, the Sora, and Virginia and King Rails; these species being mostly replaced by the Clapper Rail in salt marshes. The enigmatic Black and Yellow Rails locally occur in both marsh types.
Most rail species are short distance migrants to marshes and rice fields of the southern United States and Mexico.
Rallidae are for the most part solitary in nature except when pairing up for breeding. Most rails forage by picking grain, insects and other small creatures from marsh vegetation, except for the coots that forage by picking insects off the surface of the water.
As with other species dependent upon wetlands, many rallidae species have shown decreases in their populations because of drainage of their marshy habitats. The locally distributed Black Rail and the “Yuma” subspecies of the Clapper Rail that occurs in the delta of the Colorado River are of particularly threatened by habitat loss.
Many rail species are active at night and call more often at this time. This appears to be a means of avoiding predators, especially for the Yellow Rail, a species that even avoids calling on bright, moonlit nights.