Species At Risk

King Rail

(Rallus elegans)


King Rail
King Rail occurrences map


The King Rail is Ontario’s largest rail, standing at 40 centimetres tall. It looks much like a giant version of the much more common Virginia Rail. It has a long, slightly curved bill, long legs and a tall but very thin body, which allows it to move easily between cattail stalks – hence the expression “thin as a rail”. The chest and neck are a dull cinnamon orange, while the back is a mixture of rust and brown streaks. The sides of the body are blackish with thin, vertical white bars.

Action we are taking:


King Rails reach their northern limit in southern Ontario, where they are quite rare. Recent province-wide surveys suggest there are only about 30 pairs left, the majority of which are in the large wetlands bordering Lake St. Clair. Most of the remainder are found in several key coastal marshes along Lakes Erie and Ontario.


King Rails are found in densely vegetated freshwater marshes with open shallow water that merges with shrubby areas. They are sometimes found in smaller isolated marshes but most seem to prefer larger, coastal wetlands. Its nest is a dinner-plate sized platform made of plant material, placed just above the water in shrubs or clumps of other marsh plants.


This species has suffered major declines throughout most of its range in interior North America over the past few decades. Invasive species and the destruction and degradation of wetlands due to drainage, pollution and shoreline development have all played a role in their decline. Additional threats in populated areas include predation by cats and collisions with cars.


The King Rail and its habitat are protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. This species also receives protection under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act.

What You Can Do to Help the King Rail

  • The Ministry of Natural Resources tracks species at risk such as the King Rail. You can use a handy online form to report your sightings to the Natural Heritage Information Centre. Photographs with specific locations or mapping coordinates are always helpful. nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca
  • Report any illegal activity related to plants and wildlife to 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667).
  • Bird Studies Canada is working to advance the understanding, appreciation and conservation of wild birds and their habitat in Ontario and elsewhere. For more information on how you can help, visit: www.bsc-eoc.org.
  • Private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery. If you find a King Rail on your property, you may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats.
  • If you have wetland habitat on your property, you can help King Rails and other marsh birds by keeping or establishing natural buffers along the shoreline, avoiding the placement of bright lights that shine into the marsh, and keeping pets from running loose
  • Volunteer with your local nature club or provincial park to participate in surveys or stewardship work focused on species at risk.

Did you know?

The King Rail is a very secretive and shy bird that is most active at dawn and dusk. It is rarely seen, and is most often located by voice. It has a variety of calls but the most distinctive is a deep, rhythmic monotone grunting of “whah whah whah whah whah”. Another call is a repeating “kik-kik-kik”.

Did you know?

King Rails need open water to find food, so they migrate to the big coastal marshes of the southern US to spend the winter.

Did you know?

King Rails feed mostly on crayfish and crabs but will also eat fish, insects, and some plant seeds.

Did you know?

During courtship, males present crayfish or small crabs to females in their bill.

The Endangered Species Act

Contact your local ministry office

Often the best source of local information on species at risk is your nearest ministry office. Call with your questions or concerns.