King Rails

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Published on: May. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

One morning last June, I visited a small marsh within the Cape Girardeau city limits. I stepped out of the car and walked a few steps to the edge of the marsh. My pulse quickened when I heard a sharp, "kek-kek-kek-kek" close by. I couldn't believe my good fortune to hear the rare call of a male king rail. I had heard this mating call in the marshes of Florida, where king rails are common in some areas, but in Missouri, it's a rare treat.

A hundred years ago, the song of the king rail was probably an integral part of Missouri's marsh music. In 1906, for example, Otto Widmann reported that king rails were "a fairly common summer resident in the marshes along the large rivers." In 1919, Harry Harris wrote that king rails were not an uncommon migrant and a rare summer resident in the Kansas City area.

Sadly, this is not the case today. The bird I heard last summer was one of only a handful I have seen or heard in Missouri in more than 20 years of observing birds. Other observers claim it was not unusual to hear or see king rails in marshes in the Bootheel as late as the 1950s. Today the species is found only occasionally at a few state conservation areas and national wildlife refuges. In fact, much of what we know about the biology of the king rail in Missouri came from a study conducted by biologist Fritz Reid, who worked at Ted Shanks Conservation Area in the 1980s.

In addition to the king rail, the group of North American rails includes the blackbird-sized black rail and the duck-like American coot. The true rails live in marshes, are secretive and are usually heard, not seen. In Missouri, these include black rails (very rarely), yellow rails (rare migrants), soras (very common migrants), Virginia rails (uncommon migrants) and king rails, our only regularly breeding species.

King rails are North America's largest true rails. They stand about 14 inches tall (about the height of a crow) and have a wing span of 16 inches. On average, they weigh just under a pound. Males are about 25 percent larger than females, and their bills are more brightly colored. The breast, neck, and head of king rails are reddish-brown or rust-colored, and their flanks sport alternating black and white bars. Their back is rusty-brown, with black areas in the centers

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