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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Yellow Rail - Coturnicops noveboracensis

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status
PIF: 3

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Yellow Rail is a secretive, often overlooked bird as it prefers to run and hide instead of flying when flushed. The smallest rail in Montana, the Yellow Rail measures 7.25 inches in length, has a wingspan of 11 inches, and weighs up to 55 grams. The sexes are similar in plumage; generally yellow-buff, with a dark brownish-black crown and buffy-brown back streaked with deep brown and black. The feathers of the lower back, scapulars, and tertials have at least 2 distinctive white bars. The chin and upper throat are light- to nearly-white, and the legs are brownish to greenish (Bookhout 1995, Sibley 2000). Though similar in appearance, males are generally larger than females and have an entirely yellow bill during the breeding season, which returns to the olive-green of the female in the fall (Bookhout 1995). The iris appears dark but is yellowish-brown to reddish in the adults (Bookhout 1995). The chicks have a pink bill and are black in color. The bill fades and eventually becomes black in its juvenile stage. The juveniles are of a similar appearance to their parents, but are more speckled overall and the dark patterning on the head is less distinct. The bill is olive-green (Sibley 2000).

The vocalization of the species, by both sexes, is described as a series of clicking noises, usually in a 5-note pattern, "click-click-click-click-click", each click lasting for 0.1 second and spaced 0.1 to 0.25 second apart (Bookhout 1995). Other calls may include a ten note descending cackle, with three or four notes that sound like distant knocking on a door, soft croaking, or quiet wheezing or clucking notes (Sibley 2000). Although calling usually occurs during the night, with the males sometimes calling incessantly, diurnal activity has also been reported (Bookhout 1995). Young chicks and juveniles give various sounds described as "wees" and "peeps" (Savaloja 1981).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
This species of rail is distinguishable from the Sora by its smaller size, more yellow-buff to buff appearance, the striped yellow and black upper parts with small white crossbars and a short bill. The primaries and secondaries are primarily white, which are apparent when the bird is flushed, and are a distinctive feature of this species (Bookhout 1995). The young are darker and are more obviously specked overall than the juvenile Sora (Sibley 2000).

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 25

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Yellow Rails probably occur as migrants on their way to and from Canada and wintering areas (California or the Gulf Coast). The earliest observation of the species in the state has been reported for May, with observations also for June, July, and August (Wright 1996, Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Fall migration can occur as early as mid-August and continues to late October (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012, Goldade et al. 2002).

Breeding habitat selection is similar to that of other locations, and consists of wet sedge (Carex spp.) meadows and other wetlands containing grasses, rushes (Juncus spp.) and bulrushes (Scirpus spp) (Goldade et al. 2002). Presence of the Yellow Rail is most commonly dictated by water depth, specifically one that fluctuates throughout the breeding season, i.e. wet in the early part of the breeding season and relatively dry (no standing water) by July or September (Goldade et al. 2002).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Reported foods of the Yellow Rail diet include small snails, insects, seeds, grasses, and clover leaves (Terres 1980). Vegetation and invertebrates are the most common foods consumed. Most of the feeding activity takes place during the daytime, when birds have been seen with their heads 1.5 inches under the water while searching for food (Savaloja 1981). In Minnesota rails feed on the snail Succinea retusa (Savaloja 1981). Adults will feed on snails and small invertebrates found in dry grass, as well as seeds, grasses, and clover leaves found in sedge marshes. During rearing, the snails are an important food resource for the young.

Male territories are an average of 7.8 hectares (19 acres), and are established within one week of their arrival (Bookhout and Stenzel 1987). Territories may encompass multiple female activity areas. The activity areas used by females average 1.2 hectares (3 acres) during pre-incubation, decreasing to 0.3 hectare (0.7 acres) during incubation (Bookhout and Stenzel 1987). Adult birds are flightless for several weeks during molting (mid- to late August) (Savaloja 1981).

Reproductive Characteristics
Limited information on breeding habits of the Yellow Rail is known for Montana. Breeding is suspected in the Westby area and at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, though no nests or young have been observed (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Appropriate habitat, sedge marsh or wet meadow, exists at both of these locations.

Although no management activities are in place specifically addressing the Yellow Rail in Montana, water level manipulation for other nesting species occurs at most locations where rails are found. Conscious management of water levels for waterfowl could assist in maintaining or enhancing nesting habitat for the Yellow Rail. Outside of the national wildlife refuges, no activities are known that consider conservation of Yellow Rails. Yellow Rails are a Species of Management Concern in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 (USFWS 1995).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Bookhout, T. A. and J. R. Stenzel. 1987. Habitat and movements of breeding yellow rails. Wilson Bulletin 99:441-447.
    • Bookhout, T.A. 1995. Yellow rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). Species Account Number 139. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Goldade, C.M., J.A. Dechant, D.H. Johnson, A.L. Zimmerman, B.E. Jamison, J.O. Church, and B.R. Euliss. 2002. Effects of management practices on wetland birds: yellow rail. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Savaloja, T. 1981. Yellow rail. Birding 13(3):80-85.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management. 1995. Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the United States: the 1995 list. U.S. Government Printing Office: 1996-404-911/44014. 22 pp.
    • Wright, P.L. 1996. Status of rare birds in Montana, with comments on known hybrids. Northwestern Naturalist 77(3):57-85.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists Union. 1983. Checklist of North American birds, 6th Edition. 877 PP.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.
    • Bart, J., R. A. Stehn, J. A. Herrick, N. A. Heaslip, T. A. Bookhout, and J. R. Stenzel. 1984. Survey methods for breeding yellow rails. Journal of Wildlife Management 48:1382-1386.
    • Berkey, G. 1991. Yellow Rails: birds that go click in the night. North Dakota Outdoors, March 1991:8-9.
    • Brewer, R., G.A. McPeek, and R.J. Adams, Jr. 1991. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, Michigan. xvii + 594 pp.
    • Coffin, B., and L. Pfannmuller, editors. 1988. Minnesota's endangered flora and fauna. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
    • Eddleman, W. R., F. L. Knopf, B. Meanley, F. A. Reid, and R. Zembal. 1988. Conservation of North American rallids. Wilson Bulletin 100:458-475.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Elliot, R.D., and R.I.G. Morrison. 1979. The incubation period of the yellow rail. The Auk. 96(2): 422-423.
    • Evers, D.C. 1990. Yellow Rail, Coturnicops noveboracensis (Gmelin). Draft species abstract for Michigan Heritage Program, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.
    • Gibbs, J.P., W.G. Shriver, and S.M. Melvin. 1991. Spring and summer records of the Yellow Rail in Maine. Journal of Field Ornithology 62(4):509-516.
    • Griese, H. J., R. A. Ryder, and C. E. Braun. 1980. Spatial and temporal distribution of rails in Colorado. Wilson Bulletin 92:96-102.
    • Hanowski, J.M., and G.J. Niemi. 1988. An approach for quantifying habitat characteristics for rare wetland birds. Pages 51-56 in Ecosystem management: rare and endangered species and significant habitats. Proceedings of the 15th annual Natural Areas Conference.
    • Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 279 pp.
    • Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
    • Hotchkiss, N. 1948. Bird records from northeastern Montana. Condor 50:274-275.
    • Johnson, R. R., and J. J. Dinsmore. 1986. Habitat use by breeding virginia rails and soras. J. Wildl. Manage. 50:387-392.
    • Joslin, Gayle, and Heidi B. Youmans. 1999. Effects of recreation on Rocky Mountain wildlife: a review for Montana. [Montana]: Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • National Geographic Society (NGS). 1999. Field guide to the birds of North America. Third Edition. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
    • Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center: Biological Resources - Eastern Bluebird. United States Geological Survey
    • Ralph, J.C., J.R. Sauer, and S. Droege. 1995. Monitoring bird populations by point counts. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-149. Albany, CA: USDA Pacific Southwest Research Station. 181 p.
    • Rundle, W.D., L.F. Fredrickson. 1981. Managing seasonally flooded impoundments for migrant rails and shorebirds. Wild. Soc. Bull. 9:80-87.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Stahlhelm, P.S. 1974. Behavior and ecology of the Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis). M.S. Thesis, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 79 pp.
    • Stenzell, J. R. 1982. Ecology of breeding yellow rails at Seney National Wildlife Refuge. M.S. thesis, Ohio State Univ., Columbus.
    • Stern, M. A., J. F. Morawski, and G. A. Rosenberg. 1993. Rediscovery and status of a disjunct population of breeding yellow rails in Southern Oregon. Condor 95:1024-1027.
    • Taylor, D.M. and C.H. Trost. 1987. The status of historically rare of unrecorded birds in Idaho. Unpublished manuscript. 68 p.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2021. Birds of Conservation Concern 2021. United States Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Birds, Falls Church, Virginia.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Western EcoTech, Helena, MT., 1999, Wetland delineation report for the Haskins Landing Proposed Wetland Mitigation Area. MWFE? June 2, 1999.
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Yellow Rail — Coturnicops noveboracensis.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from