Black Rail Laterallus jamaicensis Scientific name definitions

William R. Eddleman, R. E. Flores, and M. Legare
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated January 1, 1994


Field Identification

Smallest North American rail, total adult length 10–15 cm, wingspan 22–28 cm, mean mass 29 g (California Black Rail) to 35 g (Eastern Black Rail). California Black Rail smaller and brighter colored than Eastern Black Rail. Adult generally shades of pale to blackish gray. Top of head darker than surrounding plumage (more evident in females). Underparts from chin to abdomen uniformly colored but lighter on chin and throat. Undertail coverts and flanks streaked with white and dark gray, washed with chestnut. Nape and upper back chestnut. Remainder of dorsum—back, uppertail coverts, and remiges—shades of dark gray, sometimes washed with chestnut or brown, with scattered white spots. Spotting extends to wing coverts and secondaries, although much individual variation in amount of spotting. Rectrices brownish gray. Juvenile similar to adult, but Juvenile plumage duller and white spots on back and wings fewer and smaller, white streaks on flanks thinner and less distinct. Irides of adult shades of bright red, differing from other North American rails. Tarsi and toes grayish brown. Irides of juvenile shades of brown, olive, rufous, or dull orange. Sexually dimorphic in plumage, especially California Black Rail, but sexes similar in size. Throat of female pale gray to white, ventrum medium to pale gray. Male darker, throat pale to medium gray. Color overlap minimal in live adult birds, more pronounced in museum specimens, possibly because of incorrectly sexed specimens.

Similar Species

Easily distinguished from similar species in hand and at close range. In flight, might be confused with Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) or Sora (Porzana carolina), both of which have short bills for rails, but substantially smaller and darker than both and lacks white wing patches of Yellow Rail. Downy young covered with black down; distinguishable from other rail species only by smaller size.

Recommended Citation

Eddleman, W. R., R. E. Flores, and M. Legare (2020). Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.blkrai.01