Coturnicops noveboracensisyellow rail

Geographic Range

Commonly known as yellow rails, Coturnicops noveboracensis is distributed throughout the northern neartic region. This migratory rail breeds from the Canadian Maritimes to the wetlands of the northern Great Plains and upper Midwest, from the Atlantic Ocean to Alberta, Canada. It winters along the Atlantic and Gulf coast from North Carolina through Florida, and into southern Texas. A small isolated breeding colony exists in the Klamath Basin of Oregon. ("National Audobon Society", 2011; "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR", 2011)


Coturnicops noveboracensis breeds in grass- and sedge-dominated marshes and wetlands with shallow water depths. Standing water over a foot deep, and areas with small trees may be utilized but are not ideal. Their preferred habitat provides a layer of vegetation where they can covertly move beneath. Wintering birds frequent mature salt marshes well above the water line. ("National Audobon Society", 2011; "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR", 2011; Campbell, 1990)

Physical Description

Coturnicops noveboracensis is an extremely elusive bird and rarely seen as it is so small and tends to run under vegetation. It is most often detected by its "ticking" call. Coturnicops noveboracensis has a buffy-yellow chest and face with buffy-yellow and black streaks across its back. It has a black crown, black eye stripe, and a short, yellow bill. When seen in flight a patch of white can be observed along the edge of the wings, distinguishing it from other rails. Wingspan measures 28 mm in length. Coturnicops noveboracensis averages only 15.25 to 17.78 cm in length with a weight of about 1.8 ounces, making it the second smallest rail in North America. This species exhibits no sexual dimorphism. Newly-hatched chicks are overall black or dark-brown and downy. Juveniles develop plumage similar to adults but are slightly darker. ("National Audobon Society", 2011; "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR", 2011; "Yellow Rail, Identification, All About Birds- Cornell Lab of Ornithology", 2011; "Yellow Rail- Montana Field Guide", 2011)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    50 g
    1.76 oz
  • Range length
    15 to 18 cm
    5.91 to 7.09 in
  • Average wingspan
    28 mm
    1.10 in


Not much is known about the breeding of Coturnicops noveboracensis due to its elusive nature. Males establish large territories by singing and displaying with raised wings. Pairs may preen each other as part of their courtship and are believed to be monogamous. ("National Audobon Society", 2011; "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR", 2011)

Coturnicops noveboracensis breeds annually between late April and the end of July. This is a ground-nesting species that constructs woven nests of grasses and sedges next to or surrounded by water. Within these well-camouflaged nests, females lay a clutch of 5 to 10 eggs in late May that they incubate through June for an average of 23 days. Chicks are precocial and can walk within a day but require parental feeding for up to three weeks. Juveniles later develop the ability to fly, and will fledge after 35 days. Both sexes of a similar species, water rails (Rallus aquaticus), reach sexual maturity at approximately 1 year of age. ("National Audobon Society", 2011; "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR", 2011; "Water Rail (Birds)", 2011)

  • Breeding interval
    Yellow rails breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Yellow rails breed between late April and the end of July.
  • Range eggs per season
    5 to 10
  • Average time to hatching
    23 days
  • Average fledging age
    35 days

After mating, both males and females participate in weaving their grass nests, but females finish the construction and make sure the nest is well-hidden by incorporating nearby vegetation. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the young who are able to walk within a day of hatching. The parents feed the young for about three weeks at which point the young become independent. Young are left alone for several days before they acquire flight skills and officially fledge at around 35 days old. (Ryan, et al., 1989)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Coturnicops noveboracensis has an average lifespan of 5 to 9 years. ("Wildlife in Connecticut Endangered and Threatened Species Series", 2011)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    5 to 9 years


Coturnicops noveboracensis is a secretive species which makes it difficult to observe. It conceals itself in the marsh grass and seldom flies, choosing to walk under thick marsh vegetation and stay hidden. During the non-breeding season it is a social species that migrates in large groups known as cliques. Adults are flightless for several weeks during their molting in August just before fall migration. They actively forage during the day but remain sedentary and call during dawn, dusk, and throughout the night. ("", 2007; Ryan, et al., 1989)

  • Average territory size
    0.078 km^2

Home Range

Male yellow rails have an average territory of 7.8 hectares which are established within a week of their arrival after spring migration. Females occupy a territory of a much smaller scale, 1.2 hectares, and several females may be encompassed within one male’s territory. ("Yellow Rail- Montana Field Guide", 2011)

Communication and Perception

Coturnicops noveboracensis communicates through sound, visual and tactile cues. It creates a “ticking” noise to notify others that something is approaching. Males also use a "ticking" call to establish territory, and usually pair the call with a physical display involving wing raising. Breeding pairs preen each other as a form of courtship. Like most birds, Coturnicops noveboracensis perceives its environment through auditory, visual, tactile, and chemical stimuli. ("Audubon", 2011)

Food Habits

Coturnicops noveboracensis is primarily a mulluscivore. It's diet consists mainly of small snails and crustaceans, insects, and seeds. This species will forage on the ground, surface of water, or occasionally underwater. ("National Audobon Society", 2011; "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR", 2011)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


Coturnicops noveboracensis is commonly predated upon by short-eared owls, northern harriers, red fox, feral cats, and other mammals that are agile and small enough to catch it. It is also sometimes predated upon by herons and egrets. This species' secretive nature is it's primary method of avoiding predation. Coturnicops noveboracensis remains quiet and stealthy through its whole life, rarely flying or making noise. Its cryptic coloring helps to conceal it in the marsh grass. (Sterling, 2008)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Little research has been done on the environmental role of Coturnicops noveboracensis. It serves as prey for several species and preys upon crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates around the marshes it inhabits. Coturnicops noveboracensis is a specialist in the wetland habitat that it occupies and acts as an indicator of ecosystem health along with other sensitive Aves species like short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) and sedge wrens (Cistothorus platensis). ("Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada", 2009)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Coturnicops noveboracensis provides no known economic benefits to humans. ("Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada", 2009)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Coturnicops noveboracensis has no known negative impacts on humans. ("Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada", 2009)

Conservation Status

Coturnicops noveboracensis is a species nearing special conservation concern throughout North America. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has listed it as a focal species and it is recognized as a threatened species in several states and Canada. As migratory birds in the United States, they are protected under the Migratory Bird Act which regulates the collection of this species. Habitat loss is assumed to be the main threat to this species as agricultural development, livestock grazing, and hydrological changes degrade their prime habitat. Other factors such as invasive plants, climate change, and weather catastrophes also play a role in their demise. Increased snow geese (Chens caerulescens) populations also put pressure upon yellow rails as they compete for the same resources. ("Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada", 2009)


Amanda Sausen (author), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Robert Sorensen (editor), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


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2011. "Audubon" (On-line). Accessed April 25, 2011 at

2011. "National Audobon Society" (On-line). Accessed April 04, 2011 at

2011. "Species Profile: Minnesota DNR" (On-line). Accessed April 04, 2011 at

2011. "The Light Footed Clapper Rail" (On-line). Scienceray. Accessed April 18, 2011 at

2011. "Water Rail (Birds)" (On-line). What-When-How. Accessed April 18, 2011 at

2007. "" (On-line). Accessed April 25, 2011 at

2011. "Wildlife in Connecticut Endangered and Threatened Species Series" (On-line). Accessed April 25, 2011 at

2011. "Yellow Rail, Identification, All About Birds- Cornell Lab of Ornithology" (On-line). Accessed April 04, 2011 at

2011. "Yellow Rail- Montana Field Guide" (On-line). Accessed April 04, 2011 at

2011. "" (On-line). Accessed April 25, 2011 at

2011. "what-when-how" (On-line). Accessed April 25, 2011 at

Campbell, W. 1990. The Birds of British Columbia: Nonpasserines. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Ryan, P., B. Watkins, R. Siegfried. 1989. Morphometrics, metabolic rate, and body temperature of the smallest flightless bird: The Inaccessible Island Rail. The Condor, 91: 465-467.

Sterling, J. 2008. Species Accounts: Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). Studies of Western Birds, 1: 163-166.