Species Profile

King Rail

Scientific Name: Rallus elegans
Taxonomy Group: Birds
Range: Ontario
Last COSEWIC Assessment: May 2011
Last COSEWIC Designation: Endangered
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered

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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Recovery Initiatives | Recovery Team | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of King Rail

King Rail Photo 1



The King Rail is a cinnamon-coloured marsh bird with black-and-white barred sides. It has a yellow bill that is long and slightly curved. Its back is streaked with black. Immature birds are similar in appearance to adults but are much darker. The King Rail is the largest species of North American rail - twice the bulk of the more common Virginia rail. It’s thin, long-legged form allows it to squeeze through dense vegetation and creep about wetlands with great agility. It has a variety of calls including an evenly spaced series of up to 10 kik-kik-kiks.


Distribution and Population

The King Rail potentially breeds throughout most of the eastern United States (except in the higher reaches of the Allegheny Mountains). In the United States, it is irregular and scattered everywhere, except in the lower Mississippi Valley and near the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The species also breeds in southern Canada, as well as along the Caribbean coast of Mexico (not into the Yucatan Peninsula) and in Cuba. The species winters in the Gulf states and along the Atlantic coast of its summer range. In Canada, the species breeds only in the extreme southern part of Ontario. It is thought that the King Rail was quite common in some southern Ontario marshes, although there is no early information on population numbers and the area occupied. Data from the mid 1980s and early 1990s indicates that there were between 20 and 52 pairs in Ontario. Information obtained in 1997 and 1998 confirms an optimistic estimate of 50 pairs. In 1999, an extensive survey revealed fewer than 30 calling birds. Accurate population estimates are difficult to obtain because of the King Rail’s secretive nature, but it is certain that there has been no improvement in the Canadian population of the species in recent years.



King Rails are found in a variety of freshwater marshes and marsh-shrub swamp habitats. The species occurs in areas where wild rice grows but also in sedge and cattail marshes. Most importantly, the species requires large marshes with open shallow water that merges with shrubby areas. In fact, birds only return in successive years to large marshes that are not overgrown with cattails. Originally, the best habitat for King Rails was in southwestern Ontario, but most of these wetlands have since been eliminated. Only 10% of the original pre-European settlement marshes remain in the one area of Ontario where the largest component of the species occurs. The quality of the remaining habitat is also deteriorating.



The King Rail arrives in its breeding range from late April to mid-May. It probably begins breeding in its first or second year. Males establish a territory before pairing, and will aggressively fend off other males. Once settled in a territory, males begin calling. They use courtship feeding to attract and maintain females. They also provide food for their mates throughout the egg-laying and incubation periods. The nests are deep bowls of grass constructed just above the water in bushes or clumps of marsh vegetation. In Ontario, females lay a single clutch per year, of 6 to 13 buff-coloured eggs. Both sexes share in incubation and rearing responsibilities. The King Rail has also been known to mate successfully with the slightly smaller clapper rail, which is considered by some to be a salt-water race of the King Rail. The diet of the King Rail consists mainly of crayfish and crabs but includes fish, insects and some plant seeds.



The main limiting factor is habitat loss. While the loss may have slowed over the last decade, the habitat may still be deteriorating. Current losses stem from both pollution and increased cattail abundance related to artificial maintenance of water levels. A major limiting factor for the species may be the annual burning of a large portion of the marshland in which the largest Canadian population of king rails occurs. The full extent of this factor has not yet been evaluated.



Federal Protection

The King Rail is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The King Rail occurs in several national wildlife areas, which are federal lands protected under SARA. It is the protected by the Canada National Parks Act within Point Pelee National Park. It is also protected by the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. Under this Act, it is prohibited to kill, harm, or collect adults, young, and eggs. Provincially, it is protected under the Ontario Endangered Species Act.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.


Recovery Initiatives

Status of Recovery Planning

Recovery Strategies :

Name Recovery Strategy for the King Rail (Rallus elegans) in Canada
Status Final posting on SAR registry


Recovery Team

King Rail Recovery Team

  • Angela McConnell - Chair/Contact - Environment Canada
    Phone: 416-739-5715  Fax: 416-739-4560  Send Email



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

6 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Update Status Report on the King Rail (Rallus elegans) in Canada (2011)

    The King Rail is a compact bird with a short tail, and short rounded wings. The legs are moderately long, and the beak is long and slightly decurved. The body is laterally compressed to help in moving through marsh vegetation where it lives. Males and females are similar with slate coloured crown and back, the latter with prominent tawny edges to the feathers, a white throat and buffy eye stripe, and chestnut underparts, with heavily barred black and white sides. It is a large rail about 38 cm long, much larger than the very similar Virginia Rail. The call is a series of up to 10 kek kek kek notes fairly evenly spaced. Juveniles are similar to adults, but darker above and duller brown below.

COSEWIC Assessments

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - King Rail (2011)

    This large member of the rail family is associated with marshes of various description – especially those that are large and relatively complex. Its breeding range extends from southern Ontario through much of the eastern U.S. In Canada, precise information on the population size, population trend, and breeding distribution of this rare and secretive species is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, the best available evidence indicates that the Canadian population remains small (fewer than 100 individuals). The major threat is degradation of high-quality marsh habitats across its range.

Recovery Strategies

  • Recovery Strategy for the King Rail (Rallus elegans) in Canada (2012)

    The Species at Risk Act (SARA, Section 37) requires the competent minister to prepare recovery strategies for listed extirpated, endangered or threatened species. The King Rail was listed as endangered under SARA in August 2006. Environment Canada led the development of this Recovery Strategy in partnership with the Parks Canada Agency. This recovery strategy was prepared in cooperation with the Province of Ontario, Walpole Island First Nation, Essex Region Conservation Authority, Bird Studies Canada, and Ducks Unlimited Canada as per section 39(1) of SARA.

Action Plans

  • Multi-species Action Plan for Point Pelee National Park of Canada and Niagara National Historic Sites of Canada (2016)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Point Pelee National Park of Canada and the Niagara National Historic Sites of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of the two sites: Point Pelee National Park of Canada (PPNP) and the Niagara National Historic Sites of Canada (NNHS). The NNHS is being used as a term to collectively refer to two locations in the Niagara region that consist of three National Historic Sites: Fort George National Historic Site, Battlefield of Fort George National Historic Site, and Butler’s Barracks National Historic Sites of Canada. The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species At Risk Act (SARA s.47) for species requiring an action plan and that regularly occur in these sites. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits for other species of conservation concern that regularly occur at PPNP and at NNHS.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2010 - 2011 (2011)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to “assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species”. COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings during the past year assessing the status or reviewing the classification of a total of 92 wildlife species.