Wild Thing: Salty Marsh Serenader
The black rail has a big voice in a tiny package.
By Cliff Shackelford
If a bird version of the American Idol singing competition were ever created, this species would win for having such big pipes in a tiny frame. The black rail can really belt out its kee-kee-do calls while hidden in the marsh. This bird, not much larger than a baseball, is the smallest of the six species of rail that occur regularly in Texas. It’s one tiny package.
Spotting this bird is a prized accomplishment among birders; for something so noisy, it sure is hard to find. If you grew up watching Batman, who could appear and then vanish into the shadows, the black rail is no different as it skulks in dense grass. It even sports the mostly black outfit of the Caped Crusader!
The black rail’s population has declined tremendously over the last century in the U.S. and especially along the Atlantic coast, mostly because of diminishing coastal grassy habitat and marshes. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts are trying to learn more about this species and its decline. They have funded researchers at Texas State University’s Clay Green Lab, who have increased our knowledge of this secretive marsh bird, including its detectability, home range size and habitat associations.
For example, the black rail prefers to search for tasty insects and other invertebrates in what is commonly referred to as salty prairie or high marsh. These areas are periodically submerged with water — either from heavy rains or tidal surge.
The hot spots for this rail include coastal areas from Jefferson County south to Matagorda County, especially in the national wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas and private ranches that host salty prairie habitat. Many inland records of this rail exist, indicating that some individuals are migratory while others (on the Texas Gulf Coast, for example) appear to stay year-round. There are records spanning almost the entire Texas coastline from Sabine Pass to South Padre Island, but records are spotty south of Corpus Christi.
If you’d like to see a black rail — or better yet, hear one — probably the best publicly accessible place is Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Chambers County. Listen carefully for the bird hollering kee-kee-do — a big voice in a tiny package.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page