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Yellow Rail

Coturnicops noveboracensis

Length: 6 to 7 inches Wingspan: 10 to 13 inches Seasonality: Rare visitor
ID Keys: Small with short yellowish/greenish bill, dark brown upperparts with buff stripes and thin white crossbars

Yellow Rail - Coturnicops noveboracensisThe Yellow Rail has been described as the most difficult bird to observe in North America.  They spend most of their time in thick marshy vegetation, and even if disturbed, will only rarely flush in weak, short flights.  The species is a regular breeding bird in North Dakota, but is only considered a rare visitor to South Dakota.  It is possible they are present in the northern part of the state but are largely unobserved.

Habitat: Prefers large very shallow marshes and wet meadows during summer breeding, especially those with thick vegetation of grasses and sedges.  Primarily found in coastal salt marsh during the winter.

Diet: Diet isn't well known, but insects, snails, small crustaceans, seeds, and earthworms probably make up a large portion of the diet.

Behavior: Rarely ever is found away from thick wetland vegetation.  Strongly prefers to walk or run through vegetation rather than flying, and appears to be weak in flight if it does flush. 

Breeding: Non-breeder in South Dakota

Song: Simple tick-tick-tick-tick, easily simulated by clicking two coins together.

Migration: Summers throughout much of Canada, the extreme northern Great Plains, and the Great Lakes region.  Winters along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Interactive ebird map: Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Yellow Rail sightings

Similar Species: Sora, Virginia Rail

Conservation Status: Has likely greatly declined from historical numbers due to habitat loss, but due to difficulty in observing the species, population trends are difficult to determine in most locations.

Further Information: 1) BirdWeb - Yellow Rail

2) Audubon Field Guide -Yellow Rail

3) WhatBird - Yellow Rail

Photo Information: Photo courtesy of John Clem.


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Range Map - Yellow Rail
South Dakota Status: Official status is as a very rare visitor, with only a handful of documented records.  However, given their secretive nature, they are very likely underreported in the state.

Additional Yellow Rail Photos (Coming soon!!)