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COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Yellow Rail in Canada


Status designations and ranks for the Yellow Rail, at the global, national and sub-national levels, are given in Table 1.


The Yellow Rail is not listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), although the closely related Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) of Asia is considered Vulnerable (IUCN 1996). Some authors (e.g. Ripley 1977, Bookhout 1995) consider the Swinhoe’s Rail and the Yellow Rail the same species, while others consider them part of a holarctic superspecies (Olson 1973). The Nature Conservancy has expressed some concern for the Yellow Rail’s long-term global status by ranking it G4 (The Nature Conservancy 1998).

United States

The Yellow Rail is listed as a Migratory Nongame Bird of Special Management Concern, which identifies migratory non-game birds that, without additional conservation action, are likely to become candidates for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This concern is based on its dependence on vulnerable or restricted habitats (USFWS 1995). It has concern status at the state level in all six states where it is known to breed (i.e., Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan), as well as in Idaho, South Dakota and Illinois (Table 1). It will likely be removed from the Endangered list in Illinois because it has not been found there in recent years during the breeding season, except for an unconfirmed 1998 record (J. Herkert, pers. comm.). It is ranked N3B, N4N for the U.S., meaning that it is rare or uncommon as a breeder, but as a non-breeder it is widespread, abundant, and apparently secure, albeit with concern for the long-term (The Nature Conservancy 1998).

Hunting this species is illegal throughout the U.S., but hunting of other rail species is legal in a number of states (J. Serie, pers. comm.).

Table 1: Conservation Designations for the Yellow Rail
ScaleSystem or Agency1Designation or Rank2Source3Comments
WorldIUCN1Not listed, but Swinhoe’s Rail is vulnerable.IUCN 1996Swinhoe’s Rail and Yellow Rail sometimes considered conspecific.
WorldThe Nature Conservancy Global RankG4TNC 1998Apparently secure but of long-term concern.
United StatesU.S. Endangered Species ActNot listedTNC 1998 
United StatesUSFWSMigratory Nongame Bird of Special Management ConcernUSFWSCould become a candidate for listing under the U.S. ESA.
United StatesThe Nature ConservancyN3B, N4NTNC 1998See text.
Breeding (U.S.)
WashingtonNHPSAJ. Fleckenstein 
OregonNHPS1K. PopperSmall population size and limited amount of protected and acceptable habitat available.
OregonStateSensitive CriticalK. Popper 
OregonForest ServiceSensitiveK. Popper 
IdahoNHPSAC. HarrisOnly two records.
IdahoStateProtected non-game species.C. Harris 
MontanaNHPS1P. Hendricks 
MontanaStateMigratory bird.P. HendricksHas state legal status under the Non-game and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
WyomingNHPSUM. NeighboursSix confirmed sightings, including one indicating breeding behaviour, near Jackson, on the National Elk Refuge, in 1998.
North DakotaNHPS2TNC 1998 
North DakotaStateThreatenedTNC 1998 
South DakotaNHPSUE. Dowd StukelNo nesting documented; a few scattered breeding season records.
MinnesotaNHPS3R. Baker 
MinnesotaStateSpecial ConcernR. BakerLegal status, but no formal protection. Could be removed, because is more common than once thought.
WisconsinNHPS1B. SmithVery few breeding records in uncommon habitat.
WisconsinStateThreatenedB. SmithFew occurrences, limited potential habitat.
IllinoisNHPSHJ. Herkert 
IllinoisStateListed EndangeredJ. HerkertWill likely be removed (see text).
MichiganNHPS1S2J. Hayward 
MichiganStateThreatenedJ. Hayward 
OhioTNCSXTNC 1998 
MaineNHPSPT. Hodgman 
MaineStateSpecial ConcernT. HodgmanAdditional data may lead to Threatened status.
Wintering (U.S.)
TexasNHPS3D. Scott 
LouisianaNHPUnrankedTNC 1998 
MississippiNHPS2TNC 1998 
AlabamaNHPSZJ. JohnsonUncommon winter resident, with only 11 records.
FloridaNHPSZK. Nesmith 
GeorgiaNHPUnrankedTNC 1998 
South CarolinaNHPUnrankedJ. CelyUncommon
North CarolinaNHPS2TNC 1998 
Breeding and/or Wintering (U.S)
CaliforniaNHPS1S2D. McGriffUsed to breed, very secretive, and few or no recent surveys.
CaliforniaStateSpecial ConcernD. McGriffAdministrative designation (not related to state Endangered Species Act); thought to be declining.
Breeding Status (Canada)
CanadaDunn (1997)High concern, and very high Canadian supervisory responsibility score At least 90% of global range is in Canada.
YukonN/AN/A No records.
British ColumbiaCDCSAS. CanningsNot known to breed.
AlbertaCDCS2S3J. Rintoul 
AlbertaAlberta's Wildlife ActUndeterminedAlberta Environmental Protection 1996Not enough information
SaskatchewanCDCS3J. Keith 
ManitobaCDCS4J. DuncanConsensus of 33 reviewers.
OntarioCDCS3S4G. Van Drunen 
OntarioAusten et al. 1994Endangered (southern O.) Insufficient information (northern O.)Austen et al. 1994 
QuébecLoi sur les espèces menacéesLikely to be designatedBeaulieu 1992 
QuébecRobert 1989VulnerableRobert 1989 
New BrunswickCDCUnrankedS. Gerriets 
Nova ScotiaCDCUnrankedS. Gerriets 
PEIN/AN/A No records.
Newfoundland and LabradorN/AN/A Not known to breed.
  1. IUCN – International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
    NHP- Natural Heritage Program
    DC- Conservation Data Centre

  2. Brief definitions of SRANKs (state or subnational conservation ranks) using The Nature Conservancy system. More detailed definitions are available by contacting any Conservation Data Centre (Canada) or Natural Heritage Program (U.S.).

    S1 = Critically imperiled.
    S2 = Imperiled.
    S3 = Rare or uncommon.
    S4 = Widespread, abundant, and apparently secure, but with concern for the long-term.
    S5 = Demonstrably widespread, abundant, and secure.
    S#S# = Range rank, indicating range of uncertainty.
    S? = Unranked
    SU = Unrankable
    SE = Exotic
    SA = Accidental
    SZ = Zero occurrences
    SP = Potential
    SR = Reported
    SRF = Reported falsely
    SH = Historical
    SX = Extinct
    HYB = Hybrid
    SSYN = Synonym

    B = Breeding status; N = Non-Breeding status
    For the purpose of simplification, the breeding status (B or N) has been deleted (e.g. S1B becomes S1, and S2N becomes S2).

    ? = Inexact or uncertain; C = Captive or cultivated only

  3. References to people in the Information Source column are personal communications.


The Yellow Rail is protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and accompanying regulations pertaining to hunting (Government of Canada 1989, Canadian Wildlife Service 1991). It is illegal to hunt rails anywhere in Canada, except in Ontario and in the Yukon. The bag and possession limits (all rails combined) in Ontario are 10 and 20, respectively (Canadian Wildlife Service 1998).

The Yellow Rail is considered a high concern species in Canada and a species with a very high Canadian supervisory responsibility score, reflecting the high proportion (about 90%; Figure 1) of its global range in Canada (Dunn 1997).

Northwest Territories

A new Northwest Territories endangered species legislation will allow for the protection of species at risk. For the time being, the territorial government relies on the COSEWIC list (L. Self, S. Carrière, pers. comm.). The Yellow Rail has no SRANK (see Table 1, footnote 2, for definitions of SRANKs; Figure 2).

Figure 2: SRANKs or the Yellow Rail in Canada and the U.S., and NRANK for Mexico

Figure 2: State or subnational conservation ranks or the Yellow Rail in Canada and the U.S., and National rank for Mexico.

The Nature Conservancy 1998.

British Columbia

This species is on the Yellow list (S. Cannings, pers. comm.), which includes indigenous taxa that are not considered to be at risk in British Columbia. Because it has not been determined to be present consistently, in which case it would be ranked S1, it is still ranked SA (S. Cannings, pers. comm.).


The Alberta government has designated 11 species as Endangered or Threatened under Alberta's Wildlife Act, but the Yellow Rail is not one of them. Its status in Alberta is “undetermined” because of insufficient information (Alberta Environmental Protection 1996). It is ranked S2S3B (J. Rintoul, pers. comm.).


Part 5 of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Act, "Protection of Wild Species at Risk", was proclaimed during the summer of 1997. No species are designated yet. Seven animal species are currently being considered for designation, but the Yellow Rail is not one of them. It is ranked S3 (J. Keith, pers. comm.).


The Endangered Species Act received royal assent on March 1990. Under this Act, 23 animal and species are listed as Endangered, Threatened or Extirpated; the Yellow Rail is not listed. It is ranked S4B, SZN (Duncan 1996). While it was estimated that there are likely more than 100 locations in Manitoba with suitable habitat, its presence and/or breeding has been documented at only a few of these (J. Duncan, unpublished data).


Twenty-four species are currently listed in regulation under Ontario's Endangered Species Act (I. Bowman, pers. comm.), but the Yellow Rail is not among them. It is ranked S3S4 (G. Van Drunen, pers. comm.). An Ontario status report recommended “Endangered” status for southern Ontario, and concluded that there was insufficient information for northern Ontario (Page and Cadman 1994, Austen et al., 1994).


No animal species have yet been designated under Québec's Loi sur les espèces menacées ou vulnérables, which was adopted in 1989. However, the Yellow Rail, considered vulnerable in Québec (Robert 1989), is one of 76 animal taxa listed on the Liste des espèces de la faune vertébrée menacées ou vulnérables susceptibles d’être ainsi désignées (List of Species Likely to be Designated Threatened or Vulnerable under the Act) (Gazette officielle du Québec 1993). Fortunately, it is being considered in all projects subjected to an environmental impact assessment under the Loi sur la qualité de l'environnement (Robert et al., 1995).  It is ranked S2 (P. Aquin, pers. comm.).

New Brunswick

The Yellow Rail has no official status in New Brunswick, nor was it reviewed by the former Endangered Species Committee. Nevertheless, there is concern (M. Sullivan, pers. comm.). It has not received an SRANK (S. Gerriets, pers. comm.).

Nova Scotia

An offical status evaluation has not been conducted because it is not known as a regularly breeding bird (M. Elderkin, pers. comm.). It has no SRANK (S. Gerriets, pers. comm.).