Plants and Animals

Rallus elegans King rail

species photo
Michael Sanders
species photo
Michael Sanders
species photo

Key Characteristics

The King rail is a large, 15 -19 inches (38-48 cm) long bird with a wingspan 21 - 25 inches (53-64 cm). It weighs 12 ounces (341 grams), is a rust-colored marsh bird with a long bill and long toes. Upper body parts are olive brown, the breast is reddish-brown, flanks are barred with black and white; the tail is short and often uplifted. Although seldom flushed, flight is usually short, skimming the top of emergent vegetation with legs often dangling. The similar Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) occurs in the same habitats, but is a gray-cheeked, smaller version of its larger relative and lacks the King rail's extensive barring on the sides and undertail coverts.

Status and Rank

US Status: No Status/Not Listed
State Status: E - Endangered (legally protected)
Global Rank: G4 - Apparently secure
State Rank: S2 - Imperiled


CountyNumber of OccurrencesYear Last Observed
Allegan 2 1949
Barry 4 1983
Bay 1 1999
Berrien 1 1962
Branch 1 1980
Calhoun 3 1960
Clinton 1 1973
Eaton 1 1946
Emmet 1 1949
Grand Traverse 1 1970
Gratiot 1 1998
Huron 1 2007
Ingham 4 1986
Isabella 1 1967
Jackson 3 1992
Kent 1 1986
Lapeer 1 1952
Livingston 2 1942
Macomb 1 1986
Marquette 1 1969
Monroe 4 2019
Ottawa 1 1894
Roscommon 1 1938
Saginaw 1 1990
Sanilac 1 1950
Schoolcraft 2 1981
St. Clair 5 2014
Van Buren 1 1969
Washtenaw 3 1948
Wayne 1 1986

Information is summarized from MNFI's database of rare species and community occurrences. Data may not reflect true distribution since much of the state has not been thoroughly surveyed.


The King Rail is a bird of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region. They are associated with permanent marsh habitats along upland-wetland edges largely dominated by tussock-forming sedges. In Michigan, we have few confirmed breeding records for this species in the last decade.

Natural Community Types

For each species, lists of natural communities were derived from review of the nearly 6,500 element occurrences in the MNFI database, in addition to herbarium label data for some taxa. In most cases, at least one specimen record exists for each listed natural community. For certain taxa, especially poorly collected or extirpated species of prairie and savanna habitats, natural community lists were derived from inferences from collection sites and habitat preferences in immediately adjacent states (particularly Indiana and Illinois). Natural communities are not listed for those species documented only from altered or ruderal habitats in Michigan, especially for taxa that occur in a variety of habitats outside of the state.

Natural communities are not listed in order of frequency of occurrence, but are rather derived from the full set of natural communities, organized by Ecological Group. In many cases, the general habitat descriptions should provide greater clarity and direction to the surveyor. In future versions of the Rare Species Explorer, we hope to incorporate natural community fidelity ranks for each taxon.

Management Recommendations

Since the availability of suitable habitat is a major limiting factor, protection of occupied habitats is needed as well as artificial manipulation to enhance areas for migrating and nesting rails. Hummocky topography and natural swales should be maintained for nesting and foraging. Artificial land leveling should be discouraged. Beds of perennial vegetation should be encouraged where water depths are no more than 10 inches but the soil is at least moist. In a continuum of preferred water depths for inland-breeding rallids, King rails nest in the most shallow water areas. These shallow, seasonally flooded sites are most easily drained and impacted by agriculture, especially in the Great Lakes Region when water levels are low. Suitable rail habitat can be created by flooding impoundments in spring to permit shallow water depths (less than 10 inches), followed by drawdowns in late summer to maintain vegetation density and coverage. Water depth and vegetation structure are probably more important than plant species composition. Brood foraging sites with open mud flats adjacent to dense vegetation are also crucial. Roadside mowing of borrow areas should be discouraged during the nesting and brood-rearing periods. On intensively managed refuges, a complex of wetland units should include marsh habitats that dry naturally during the summer and may include extensive perennial vegetation.

Active Period

Migration from first week of April to third week of April

Migration from first week of September to first week of October

Nesting from third week of April to fourth week of June

Survey Methods

Because of their secretive behavior, rails are more often heard than seen. Birds are quite vocal at night during courtship and most of the incubation period (generally mid April to mid May), and readily respond to taped recordings of their loud and diagnostic calls. The call most commonly used is grunt-like, and may be described as "jupe-jupe-jupe".

Listen for call, broadcast call

Survey Period: From third week of April to third week of May

Time of Day: Night


Survey References

  • Bibby, C.J., N.D. Burgess, and D.A. Hill. 1992. Bird Census Techniques. Academic Press, New York.

Technical References

  • Evers, D.C. 1994. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of Michigan. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 412pp.
  • Rabe, M.L. 2001. Special Animal Abstract for Rallus elegans (King rail). Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, MI. 4pp.

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