Black Rails in North Carolina

M. D. Wilson, The Center for Conservation Biology
B D. Watts, The Center for Conservation Biology
D Poulton, The Center for Conservation Biology


The Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis ) is the most imperiled bird species along the Atlantic Coast. The species has undergone a range reduction, loss of breeding sites, and a loss of individuals from their most important strongholds. Reasons for the decline are unclear but may be a result of marsh loss and degradation, poor reproduction, adult survival, and incompatible management practices. North Carolina has long been known to be an important stronghold for Black Rail populations in the mid-Atlantic region. However, most of what was known on their population abundance and distribution was based on a scattering anecdotal surveys and general observations. The objective of this study was to conduct a broad, systematic survey of the Black Rail along the coast of North Carolina to provide information on the species status and distribution. We established a network of survey points within areas historically known to support Black Rails and other areas with appropriate habitat. The results of this effort were the detection of Black Rails at 15 of 153 locations surveyed in 2014 and 5 of 109 locations surveyed in 2015. The population of Black Rails in North Carolina appears to be broadly disseminated along the coast with detections across many locations of the survey network. However, population numbers are low and declining. Most detections at survey locations were of single birds. Moreover, the number of birds detected at the state’s largest known population at Cedar Island NWR was much lower compared to historical observations. A high count of 74 calling Black Rails were detected at Cedar Island NWR in 1974. Surveys through the late 1980s and 1990s documented about 20 birds. Our survey effort only yielded a maximum of 8 individuals. Black Rails occupied the high marsh zone across all locations they were detected. These habitat patches are characterized by the presence of salt meadow hay (Spartina. patens) and saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and often interspersed with lower wet areas of black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus). This project helps to identify areas for Black Rail conservation and management. The Cedar Island NWR and peninsula of Carteret County it inhabits remains as the most important area for focal management based on the concentration of birds in several marshes. This survey effort also serves as an important benchmark to compare future survey and monitoring efforts.