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Feds propose to list Eastern Black Rail as threatened

Black Rail
An Eastern Black Rail rests in a bander’s grip in Texas. Photo by Christy Hand/South Carolina Department of Natural Resources

In response to a 2010 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week proposed to protect the Eastern Black Rail as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The bird once occurred across much of the eastern United States in salt- and freshwater wetlands, but it has been lost from major portions of its range and is in steep decline.

“We’re relieved that this fascinating and secretive bird is getting the protection it desperately needs to survive,” said Stephanie Kurose, an endangered species advocate at the center. “For too long, we’ve been plowing and paving over wetlands that not only provide crucial habitat for the survival of rails and thousands of other wildlife species, but also protect us against flooding and clean our water.”

The rail has been lost from New England, the Appalachians, and the central lowlands of the Midwest. It still occurs from New Jersey south through Florida and across the Gulf Coast to Texas, as well as in freshwater wetlands of Kansas and Colorado on the Great Plains, but in some areas it has declined by as much as 90 percent.

Population size and trend estimates from a 2016 independent assessment of the Eastern subspecies indicated declining populations of the rail. Estimates for the Atlantic Coast are between 355-815 breeding pairs. Estimates from a Texas research project indicated a population of around 1,300 individuals for the upper Texas Coast — a noted stronghold for the bird prior to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. No true population estimates exist for interior states such as Colorado, Kansas, or Oklahoma, but small populations are found in Colorado and Kansas, where the bird breeds in the spring and summer.

The primary threat to the rails is the destruction of wetlands by urban and agricultural sprawl, but it is also increasingly threatened by sea-level rise, which, according to the FWS rule, is worse than the global average on both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

“The rail’s yet another example of all that we stand to lose if we don’t do more to curb emissions and climate change,” said Kurose. “This bird once occupied half a continent, but it’s slipping away because of our carelessness.”

A relative of coots and cranes, the Black Rail is a small, stocky bird with speckled black plumage, a rufous nape, and scarlet eyes. The FWS proposal is for the partially migratory Eastern subspecies. The California subspecies, a resident of coastal California, northwestern Baja California, the lower Imperial Valley, and the lower Colorado River of Arizona and California, is not proposed for protection. Two other subspecies of Black Rail that occur in South America are also not included in this listing proposal.

The Service will accept comments on the proposal received or postmarked on or before December 10, 2018. Information on how to submit comments is available at by searching under docket number FWS–R4–ES–2018–0057.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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