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Feathered Friends – ‘Thin as a rail’ applies to elusive bird

The clapper rail, such as this individual, prefers concealment in dense wetland reeds and other vegetation, which makes this bird difficult for birders to observe. (Photo by Coffee/

By Bryan Stevens

During a recent stay at Pawleys Island in South Carolina, I enjoyed birding along the Grand Strand. During my stay, I enjoyed observations of such coastal specialties as wood stork, white ibis, little blue heron, painted bunting, anhinga and clapper rail. I was especially pleased to both hear and see clapper rails, which can be quite elusive and more often heard than seen.

The clapper rail is abundant in saltwater marshes and mangrove swamps from the East Coast of the United States to Central America and the Caribbean. This secretive bird lives most of its life concealed in dense vegetation. The clapper rail is one of the largest rail species. Ranging from 13 to 16 inches in length, the clapper rail can be identified by its chicken-like appearance, long unwebbed toes, long decurved bill and frequently upturned tail with white under tail covert feathers. The chattering call of the clapper rail has been described as “chuck, chuck, chuck” or “kek, kek, kek.”

Clapper rails are different from close relatives in preferring a more carnivorous diet. This bird is fond of such prey as crayfish, crabs, fish, frogs, snails, grasshoppers and aquatic insects, but clapper rails also feed on some plant material and seeds.

The clapper rail is classified as a game bird, but as best as I could determine, it is not a popular target for most hunters, who prefer waterfowl or shorebirds like the American woodcock. Due to its chicken-like appearance, the clapper rail is often also known by the common name “marsh hen.”

Rail young are precocial and can follow adults to forage for food soon after hatching. Male clapper rails are charged with nest building, but both male and female share incubation duties. The female may lay from six to 14 eggs, which require about 20 days of incubation before they hatch.

The clapper rail has evolved some interesting adaptations for living in saltwater wetlands. For instance, special glands allow the bird to drink salty ocean water without suffering any ill effects. In addition, eggs can be submerged by rising tides for a short period yet still hatch.

I made my observations of this rail during my trip from causeways and boardwalks at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. I heard many more clapper rails than I saw. I spotted one clapper rail that left the cover of marsh vegetation to forage in the open on a mudflat. I watched the bird for several minutes, getting some photographs at the same time.

Toward the end of my observation of the bird, I noticed a second, somewhat smaller bird, emerge from the vegetation. Based on the size difference and some differences in plumage, I realized I was looking at an adult clapper rail and its half-grown offspring. Observing an adult clapper rail is notoriously difficult, so I felt some justifiable excitement at the opportunity to watch some interaction between an adult rail and its offspring.

Everyone has probably heard the phrase “thin as a rail,” but determining the origins of the phrase is shrouded in some confusion. There’s some interesting debate about whether the phrase comes from a comparison with birds known as rails, which have a laterally compressed body that allows them to easily run through thick marsh vegetation, or more mundane wooden rails used to construct fences or steel rails used in railroad tracks. The phrase first made it into print in 1872, when Mark Twain used it in his book “Roughing It.”

Writer Warren Clements wrote an excellent article for The Globe and Mail on Dec. 22, 2007, that explores the origin of the phrase. In his article, he makes the case that confusion over the origins of the phrase may have to do with two Latin words —regula and rascula — which are rather similar but different in meaning. “Regula” translates as “straight stick” while “rascula” is likely a description of the hoarse vocalizations these birds make. The term “rascula” stems from both Latin and Old French terms meaning “to bray” or “to mock,” respectively. Anyone who has heard the rattling calls of a clapper rail in its wetland haunts would agree that the birds sound as if they are “railing” irritably in their home of mud and reeds.

Rails belong to an extensive family of birds known as the Rallidae, which also includes coots, crakes, gallinules and moorhens. Several hundred species of rails endemic to islands around the world have become extinct in just the past few centuries. All the extinctions can be traced to actions from human beings. Other island rails remain endangered and in need of extreme protective measures. Many species of birds native to islands are vulnerable to extinction, with rails being spectacularly so.

In 2014, the species was split into three: clapper rail; Ridgway’s rail of California, Arizona and Nevada; and mangrove rail of South America. Other North American rails include Virginia rail, yellow rail, black rail, king rail and sora. Other rails found around the world, some with rather descriptive names, include pink-legged rail, slaty-breasted rail, white-striped forest rail, invisible rail, spotted rail, snoring rail and white-throated rail.