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COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada

COSEWIC Status Report on the
Yellow Rail
Coturnicops noveboracensis
in Canada

Species Information


Global Distribution

Except for a very small area in Mexico where a few birds may still breed, the Yellow Rail breeds exclusively in Canada and the northern U.S., with Canada comprising about 90% of its breeding range (3 266 000 of 3 641 000 km2; Figure 1). Its imperfectly known breeding distribution seems to be quite local and disjunct (Clements 1991, Bookhout 1995).

Figure 1: Breeding and Wintering Areas of the Yellow Rail (adapted from Bookhout 1995)

Figure 1: Breeding and wintering areas of the Yellow Rail (adapted from Bookhout 1995).

Some taxonomic works (e.g. Dickerman 1971) recognized two subspecies of Yellow Rail: Coturnicops noveboracensis noveboracensis, which breeds in the northern U.S. and southern Canada and winters in the southern U.S., and C. n. goldmani, which has been found only in San Pedro Techuchulco and Lerma, Valley of Toluca, State of México, Mexico (Blake 1953, Ripley 1977, Howell and Webb 1995). Unfortunately, the darker Mexican subspecies (Dickerman 1971) has not been reported since 1964, and much of the area where it was observed in the past has been drained since that time (Bookhout 1995, Howell and Webb 1995). However, according to Howell and Webb (1995), it could occur elsewhere in the Rio Lerma drainage west to Lake Chapala, Mexico.

United States


The U.S. breeding distribution is largely limited to the north-central states (Figure 1), where the southern limit of its range crosses north-eastern Montana, central North Dakota, northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and northern Michigan (Coffin and Pfannmuller 1988, Bookhout 1995). A small population was recently rediscovered in south-central Oregon, which constitutes the first proof of nesting in the western U.S. since 1950 (Stern et al., 1993), and it is possible that Yellow Rails breed in other areas in the western U.S. (K. Popper, pers. comm.). There have been four records during the breeding season in locations scattered over the southeast half of South Dakota, and breeding may occur in the northern half of the state because breeding habitat seems to occur there (E. Dowd Stukel, pers. comm.). Yellow Rails may breed in Wyoming (D. Wile, pers. comm.). It is highly likely that they breed in Maine, despite their apparent low numbers and lack of confirmation to date (Gibbs et al., 1991; T. Hodgman, pers. comm.).  The species may breed very locally elsewhere in the northeastern U.S., such as in northern New Hampshire, Vermont and New York (Gibbs et al., 1991).

Elsewhere it formerly nested in east-central California, central Ohio, and northern Illinois (Dawson 1921, Dunn 1988, Roberson 1993, Bookhout 1995, AOU 1998, The Nature Conservancy 1998). The last confirmed summer occurrences of the species in these states date from 1990 (D. McGriff, pers. comm.), 1944 (Peterjohn 1989), and 1984 (J. Herkert, pers. comm.), respectively. The recent California date and the observation of one bird on 15 July 1985 at Mono Lake County Park, which is within the state’s former nesting area (D. McGriff, pers. comm.), suggest that breeding may still occur in California. The species is now considered a rare migrant and accidental summer visitor in Ohio (Thompson 1994), through which it undoubtedly passes during migration, and where it may have been a very local and rare summer resident at several extensive sedge meadows (Peterjohn 1989).

The last confirmed breeding record in Illinois was a nest with eggs and an adult taken before 1876. Since that time there have been very few records, mostly during migration. The most recent confirmed observation was made on 22 May, 1984. Virtually all observations in the state are sightings of birds flushed by observers wading through marshes, or by machines mowing in Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) sanctuaries. People have been on the lookout for Yellow Rails in Illinois because it has been on the state’s Endangered list, and tapes have been played in appropriate habitat to elicit a response from this species. There is an unconfirmed 9 June, 1998 record. The confirmed nesting record from the last century was from the north-central part of the state and may have been a case of accidental breeding (J. Herkert, pers. comm.).

The most recent observation of a Yellow Rail in South Dakota was made 11 May, 1976. This bird may have been a migrant. However, there was a 24 June, 1948 record, which would have been during the breeding season (E. Dowd Stukel, pers. comm.).

The presence of Yellow Rails is accidental in Washington and Idaho (Tweit and Skriletz 1996, The Nature Conservancy 1998). Historical reports (e.g. Knight 1908, Bent 1926, Harris 1945) suggest that the species bred in several states in the northeast, but most of these records (if not all) have been disputed or are poorly documented (Gibbs et al., 1991). Even though Audubon (in Bookhout 1995) reported (in 1842) that the “Yellow-breasted Rail is a constant resident in the Peninsula of the Floridas, as well as in the lower parts of Louisiana, where I have found it in all seasons”, and also stated that it began breeding on the Florida Keys and around New Orleans (Louisiana) in March, there has apparently never been any subsequent confirmation (or any information) of breeding by the Yellow Rail at these latitudes (Bookout 1995). In our view, it is possible that the “Yellow-breasted Rail” that Audubon referred to did not correspond to the Yellow Rail (or at least not to the nominal sub-species).

The Yellow Rail is thus distributed very locally in the U.S. during the breeding season. There seem to be very few breeding sites that are consistently used by many individuals. The best known are in Oregon (Wood River Valley, Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Sycan Marsh, and Big Marsh), North Dakota (Kidder County), Minnesota (McGregor Marsh), and Michigan (Seney National Wildlife Refuge).


The Yellow Rail winters near the coast in the southeastern U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico, from North Carolina to eastern Texas (Figure 1), although most birds located in fall and winter are detected in rice fields in southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, as well as at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas (Oberholser 1938, Cardiff and Smalley 1989, Robert 1997). It is a fairly common winter visitor in the Spartina marshes and tall-grass pastures along the coast of Texas, and in the rice fields farther inland (Holt 1993). Based on birders’ observations, it seems to winter in a narrow band (within about 48 km) along the upper and central coast of Texas, but it may use rice fields and wetlands farther inland prior to and during migration (K. Mizell and K. Arnold, pers. comm., Cardiff and Smalley 1989). The Yellow Rail is apparently common in salt marshes during March and April at the Brazoria-San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge Complex on the mid-Texas coast (C. Cordes, pers. comm.).

In the early part of this century, it was apparently a rather rare winter resident in Alabama, but was fairly common at times during migration (Howell 1924). In neighbouring Florida, it is a very rare but regular winter visitor, but it is unknown from the Keys (Robertson and Woolfenden 1992, Stevenson and Anderson 1994). The only site specifically mentioned for observing Yellow Rails in a recent birdfinding guide for Florida (Pranty 1996) is the Apalachicola National Forest in the Panhandle; except for migrants that struck television towers, the great majority of reports occurred near the coast (Stevenson and Anderson 1994).

The Yellow Rail is a rare winter visitor to wet old field habitats in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina (Carter 1993). It has also been found farther inland as far as Richland County, at the upper edge of the coastal plain. Much apparently suitable coastal habitat is devoid of the bird. It may be more widespread than generally realized, although it is nonetheless suspected to be uncommon in South Carolina in winter and migration (J. Cely, pers. comm.). It is a rare wintering bird in coastal North Carolina (Pearson et al.,1942), where there are about two reports a year. Most birds are reported in brackish marshes and wet broomsedge fields, within about 15 km from the coast (H. LeGrand, pers. comm.).

A few individuals have wintered on the west coast from Oregon south to California (Savaloja 1981, Dunn 1988, Roberson 1993, AOU 1998). Autumn and winter records from the West Indies, including Cuba, are exceptional (Barrows 1912, Bent 1926, Ripley 1977, Raffaele et al., 1998).


The known Canadian distribution includes the Mackenzie District of the Northwest Territories, eastern Alberta, central Saskatchewan, most of Manitoba and Ontario, the southern half of Québec, New Brunswick, and northern Nova Scotia (Godfrey 1986, Erskine 1992). The species does not winter in Canada.


The Yellow Rail is not known to occur in the Yukon (Yukon Renewable Resources, Yukon Birds: Field Checklist).

Northwest Territories

It breeds very locally in the southern Mackenzie District in the portion lying between Great Slave Lake and the Alberta border (Godfrey 1986).

British Columbia

Until recently, the Yellow Rail was considered hypothetical (Campbell et al., 1990). Although breeding has never been confirmed, there have been recent observations in the breeding season (e.g. Taylor 1993, Sherrington 1994, Bowling 1997) suggesting that there may be a small number of locally distributed birds in the Peace River region in the northeast, and also possibly in the Kootenay region in the southeastern portion of the province (W. Campbell, pers. comm.). Nevertheless, its breeding status is still accidental (S. Cannings, pers. comm.).


It breeds in the eastern half of Alberta from the Lake Athabasca region south at least to Ribstone Creek and west to Cochrane where it nested until the 1950s (Salt and Salt 1976, Godfrey 1986). Except for one 10 km x 10 km square in the northeast part of the province, it was detected only in a few squares in east-central Alberta between 1987 and 1991 (Semenchuk 1992). Rand (1948) did not mention the Yellow Rail in his summary of the status of the birds of southern Alberta, which he considered to be the portion of the province south of a line connecting the Red Deer River and Banff. The species’ centre of abundance in the province is the east-central portion (Pinel et al., 1991, McGillivray and Semenchuk 1998).


The Yellow Rail occurs in extensive fens and sedge marshes, which are scarce in Saskatchewan. It is therefore an uncommon and local summer resident over its range, which extends from the fringes of the Southern Boreal Region south through the Parklands. Records from the Grasslands are rare. It is considered an irregular summer resident in east-central Saskatchewan, from Kelvington to Kelsey Trail (Hooper 1992).


It nests locally throughout Manitoba from Churchill south to Brandon (Lane 1962, Salt and Salt 1976, Chartier 1994). It has long been known from Churchill (Fuller 1938), and indications of breeding there include the capture of four males with enlarged testes in late July 1937 (Fuller 1938) and a female with a large brood patch on 21 July 1964 (J. Jehl, pers. comm.). Possibly the only breeding site in the Grasslands Region is Douglas Marsh (near Brandon), which is close to the Trans Canada Highway and is easily accessible by foot (Bennett 1981, Cuthbert et al., 1990, R. Alvo, pers. obs.). The species is less common in southeastern Manitoba than elsewhere in southern Manitoba (Cleveland et al., 1995).


The only area of the province where it occurs regularly and in substantial numbers is along the entire Ontario portion of the west coast of Hudson/James Bay (Austen et al., 1994). Breeding has been confirmed at Attawapiskat, Cape Henrietta Maria (Speirs 1985) and North Point (Elliot and Morrison 1979), and the species was “common” at Winisk, Moosonee, and Fort Severn (Speirs 1985). It was found during the atlas period in 11 of 12 blocks of 100 km x 100 km in 1981-1985 (Cadman et al., 1987) and there are other records from the region.

There have been a few records from the eastern Lake Superior area, and a bird was reported from Big Trout Lake in the Kenora District in 1984 (Austen et al., 1994). While seemingly rather isolated in Ontario, the Rainy River population is actually contiguous with the northern Minnesota population (the U.S. stronghold). Yellow Rails are widespread in Minnesota’s northwest, which is adjacent to the Rainy River area. They “seem quite partial to the Highway 72 vicinity” in northern Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota (Eckert 1983). We know of no-one who has searched the small portion of Ontario located on the west side of Lake of the Woods, but the species has been found within 5 km of Ontario at Indian Bay (Manitoba), which is accessible by land only from the Manitoba side.

Given the proximity of known Yellow Rail range in northern Michigan (e.g. Seney National Wildlife Refuge) and northern Wisconsin, along with reports of Yellow Rails from Quetico Provincial Park (D. Elder, pers. comm.) and a recent observation on western Manitoulin Island (Cadman et al., 1987), the entire northern coast of the Great Lakes from southern Georgian Bay (only 50 km from Holland Marsh) to the Manitoba/Ontario border could potentially have Yellow Rails. Numerous large sedge meadows occur on western Manitoulin Island (J. Jones, pers. com.).

In southern Ontario, the Yellow Rail has been recorded sporadically in summer at a few widely scattered marshes (present in only six of 1824 atlas squares (Cadman et al., 1987)), only two of which have recent breeding evidence – Richmond Fen, in the Ottawa region, and Holland Marsh, along the south shore of Lake Simcoe (Sankey 1987, Goodwin 1992, Page and Cadman 1994). Birds were heard during three consecutive years after 1991 in the Carden Plain, north of Toronto, but not in 1997 or 1998.


The Québec stronghold is probably along James Bay, where it has been reported in various marshes from Cabbage-Willows Bay (in the southern part of Rupert Bay) north to Chisasibi (formerly Fort-George) (Todd 1963, Consortium Gauthier & Guillemette-GREBE 1992a). In southern Québec, however, it was reported in only 14 of 2464 (0.6%) 10 km x 10 km atlas squares visited between 1984 and 1989 (Gauthier and Aubry 1996). Almost all the summer records are from only a few locations along the St. Lawrence River. Breeding has been confirmed only at Coin-du-Banc (on the Gaspé Peninsula) and Ile aux Grues (in the St. Lawrence estuary) (Terrill 1943, Robert et al., 1995, Robert and Laporte 1997). However, it has been observed and may breed at a few other sites, all of which (except for Saint-Fulgence on the Saguenay River where few individuals have been found over the years) are located along the St. Lawrence River. A number of these sites are occupied irregularly and/or during migration (Robert et al., 1995).

There are a few records from Québec’s interior (David 1980, Cyr and Larivée 1995, Robert et al., 1995). Only the Abitibi region has reasonably good breeding evidence. Birds have been heard, and one specimen was collected, at La Ferme near Amos in the 1950s (Father C. Larose, pers. comm.). Birds were heard at Marais Antoine in 1984, 1985, 1995, 1996 and 1998 (Robert et al., 1995; M. Robert, pers. obs.), and at the Marais Maine in 1996, in both cases in potential breeding habitat (M. Robert, pers. obs., van de Walle 1997). It is thus considered an exceptional breeder in that region (van de Walle 1997). Breeding may occur in fens in the province’s vast interior, but recent surveys for the species in half a dozen of them have not borne fruit (M. Robert, pers. obs.).

New Brunswick

A nest with eggs taken near Milltown in 1881 is the only proven breeding in the Maritimes (Erskine 1992). The only site where it is known to occur regularly is Grand Lake Meadows, in the upper estuary of the St. John River, southeast of Fredericton. The species’ presence in the Midgic and Jolicure marshes near Sackville in many summers since 1949 also suggests breeding there (Erskine 1992).

Nova Scotia

Tufts (1961) considered the Yellow Rail a very rare summer resident in Nova Scotia. Amherst Point is apparently the only locality where Yellow Rails were heard in recent (1986 and 1989) years (Erskine 1992).

Prince Edward Island

The Yellow Rail is not known to occur in Prince Edward Island (Anonymous 1991, Erskine 1992).


The Yellow Rail was not mentioned in Montevecchi and Tuck’s (1987) treatise on the birds of Newfoundland, not even as a vagrant, and there have been no reports since then (W.A. Montevecchi, pers. comm.). It is casual in Labrador, where it has been observed at Hamilton Inlet (Godfrey 1986).