Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis)

Photo by Travis MahanYellow Rail by Travis MahanYellow Rail distribution map


Population Information

The Federal BBS information can be obtained at by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for time period (1966-2005).

Life History

Habitat Selection

Throughout its range, the Yellow Rail nests in wet sedge meadows, fens, boggy swales, and shallow marshes that contain a canopy of residual vegetation and damp soil or standing water (Bookhout 1995, Goldade et al. 2002). Water depth is an important predictor of Yellow Rail habitat, with most rails occurring in areas with <46 cm of water. Shallower depths are preferred around the nest site (<20 cm) but depths may vary throughout the nesting season due to natural water level fluctuations. In Wisconsin, the Yellow Rail often occurs in sedge marshes and meadows dominated by Carex lasiocarpa (Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Hoffman 1990, Bookhout 1995, Ribic 1999) but also wetlands containing other Carex and grass species, especially bluejoint grass (Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Mossman and Sample 1990). Although the Yellow Rail occurs in wetlands <1 ha and appears not to be area sensitive in some parts of its range (Goldade et al. 2002), Mossman and Sample (1990) suggested that this species requires large (>40 ha) tracts of habitat in Wisconsin.

Habitat Availability

Wisconsin’s sedge marshes and meadows historically suffered from drainage, ditching, filling, and grazing and more recently from commercial cranberry farming and mossing operations. These activities can result in permanent habitat loss or altered plant composition, thereby reducing habitat suitability for Yellow Rail and other sedge meadow-associated birds. Today, only 12,200 ha of sedge meadows and marshes remain in moderate to high quality (Mossman and Sample 1990). Although most of the remaining sedge meadows are highly fragmented, large tracts persist at Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas (Burnett Co.) and Powell Marsh (Vilas Co.; Hoffman 2002). Yellow Rails consistently occur at these sites and less frequently at other wetland areas, including Bark Bay Slough State Natural Area (Bayfield Co.), Green Bay wetlands (Marinette Co.), Oconto Marsh (Oconto Co.), Mud Lake and Mink River Estuary State Natural Areas (Door Co.), Comstock Bog (Marquette Co.), and Killsnake Wildlife Area (Calumet Co.; Howe 2006). Seemingly suitable habitat exists in the Central Sand Plains ecological landscape but no recent records of Yellow Rail have been documented there.

Population Concerns

There is no information on population trends for Yellow Rail. Its secretive nature and localized breeding distribution makes it particularly challenging to monitor. Although numerous sources suggest that this species is more abundant than encounters would indicate, systematic surveys are needed to verify this (Bookhout 1995). In Wisconsin, it is considered a rare and very local summer resident with breeding confirmed only in Bayfield and Shawano counties (Howe 2006) and the Green Bay marshes (Robbins 1991). Loss and alteration of sedge meadow habitat on the breeding grounds are the greatest threats to Yellow Rail populations (Bookhout 1995).

Recommended Management

Conservation measures that protect sedge meadows and marshes from draining, channelization, and other forms of alteration will benefit the Yellow Rail as well as Le Conte’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, and other sedge meadow-associated species. Although waterfowl management can be compatible with the maintenance of Yellow Rail habitat, rails generally require shallower water depths (<46 cm) and greater coverage of emergent vegetation than most waterfowl species. Thus, managers should maintain wetland complexes in a variety of conditions to support a diversity of wetland-associated species. Woody shrub encroachment reduces the suitability of wetland habitats and can be controlled by burning or mowing (Van Dam et al. 1993, Bookhout 1995). Conservation and management strategies for this species should focus in the following ecological landscapes: Northwest Sands, Central Sand Hills, Central Sand Plains, Forest Transition, Northern Highland, Superior Coastal Plain, and Northern Lake Michigan Coastal (WDNR 2005).   

Research Needs

Systematic surveys of historical breeding sites and other suitable habitats would help refine our knowledge of this species’ status and distribution in Wisconsin. More information is needed on breeding habitat requirements in the state and management techniques that maintain these conditions. Additionally, the compatibility of waterfowl and rail management strategies needs more study. Little is known about Yellow Rail biology and associated limiting factors on the wintering grounds (Van Dam et al. 1993, Bookhout 1995).

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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