Wildlife - Species

Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris)


The clapper rail belongs to the family Rallidae, which also includes gallinules and coots. Rails are marsh inhabitants with laterally compressed (flattened) bodies that enable them to slip between reeds and tall grasses. The clapper rail, also known as the marsh hen, is a relatively large bird (36-41 cm or 14-16 in) with long legs, large feet, and long toes. The bird's wings are rounded and short, its flanks are barred with black and white, and it has a long bill. This species is similar in appearance to the king rail but can be differentiated by its grayish-brown coloration as opposed to the more rusty color of the king rail. Also, the king rail is more often found in freshwater marshes, although it does frequent salt marshes during the winter. Clapper rail young are uniformly black, as are the young of all rail species.

Preferred Habitat and Biology

The species extends along the east coast of North and South America from New England to Brazil, and along the Pacific coast from California to Peru. Breeding grounds in the United States extend from central California and Massachusetts southward. Clapper rails spend winter months as far north as central California on the west coast and New Jersey on the east coast. They are common in salt marshes throughout the coastal region of South Carolina.

In South Carolina, clapper rails begin nesting in mid to late March, sometimes as late as April. Nests are shallow, saucer-shaped depressions or deep bowls of dead marsh grass usually constructed a couple of feet above the water. A dome-shaped canopy made of blades of grass is typically placed over the nest in order to conceal the eggs from predators. Average clutch size ranges from 8 to 10 creamy buff eggs with purplish or brown markings. Incubation, carried out by both sexes, lasts about 14 days, and young are able to leave the nest soon after hatching. Two broods may be raised each year, and both parents care for their young during the early stages of development. Because the nest is so close to the water, it is vulnerable to flooding; however, if the eggs are lost to a high tide or predation, the birds typically lay again. Perhaps the most distinct characteristic of the clapper rail, one that is often associated with Lowcountry salt marshes, is the bird's loud clattering call. When one bird begins to vocalize, neighboring birds usually join in. Clapper rails are nocturnal and rather secretive; thus, they are rarely seen. They seldom fly and they are good swimmers despite lacking webbed feet. Their diet consists of crustaceans, such as shrimp and crabs, fish, mollusks, insects, and some plant seeds.

Species Significance

Historically, clapper rails were hunted in many areas of their range, including South Carolina. Even though large numbers were taken, populations remained stable. Currently, they are listed as protected game in the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Hunting Regulations.


[Anonymous]. Not dated. A guide to the Life in the Salt marsh poster. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division.

Bull, J. L. and J. Farrand, Jr. 1995. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Eastern Region. The Audubon Society field guide series. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, NY.

Meanley, B. 1985. The marsh hen--A natural history of the clapper rail of the Atlantic coast salt marsh. Tidewater Publishers, Centerville, MD.

Oney, J. 1954. Final report, clapper rail survey and investigation study. Georgia Game and Fish Commission, Game Management Division, Atlanta, GA.

Sprunt, A., Jr. and E. B. Chamberlain. 1970. South Carolina bird life. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC.