Least Water Rail

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[Black Rail.]

[Laterallus jamaicensis.]


My knowledge of this pretty little species is altogether derived from TITIAN PEALE, Esq., of Philadelphia, by whom, in October, 1836, I was favoured with the following letter:--

"I herewith send you the 'Little Rail' of which we were speaking yesterday, and the letter of Dr. ROWAN which relates to it. The young died soon after I received them, but the old one lived with me until the 26th of July (four days after its capture), evincing considerable anxiety for the young, as long as they lived. Both young and old partook sparingly of Indian meal and water, or bread and water, and soon became quite at home, and probably might have been domesticated, had they been properly accommodated.

"The most remarkable part of the history of this individual is, that after its death we should have discovered on dissection that it was a male, rendering it singularly curious that he should have suffered himself to be captured by hand while in defence of the young brood.

"There is now in the Museum a specimen of this species, which has been in the collection for about thirty years, said to have been caught in the vicinity of the city. It stands labelled 'Little Rail, Rallus minutus, Turton's Linn;' but the authenticity of the specimen has always been disputed by BONAPARTE, and others, because none else had been found; and the author just named expressed a belief that it was an immature specimen of Rallus (Crex) Porzana of Europe.

"I regret that I should have mislaid the measurements of the specimen when recent, if any were taken, and cannot lay my hands on them, or any thing more than the above notes. Respectfully yours, &c. TITIAN R. PEALE."

Inclosed in Mr.PEALE's letter was the following note from Dr. ROWAN "to the Messrs. PEALES."

"On Saturday last I wrote to you of the Rail-bird breeding near this place. I then described one that I caught last summer, which was unlike the Rail in the fall season, and I presumed that all in the wet ground were the same, but this day my men mowing around the pond started up two of the usual kind. The hen flew a few rods, and then flew back to her young in an instant, when they caught her, together with her four young, which I herewith send you. Many more can be caught. I have seen them in our meadow every month of the year, but they never make a great noise except when very fat on the wild oat's seed. From the above you will conclude that they do not migrate to the south, but breed here. Respectfully, THOMAS ROWAN."

RALLUS JAMAICENSIS, Briss. Suppl., p. 140.

LEAST WATER RAIL, Rallus jamaicensis, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. P. 359.

Male, 6, wing, 3 7/8.

From Louisiana to New Jersey, in fresh-water meadows and marshes, difficult of access. Migratory.

Adult Male.

Bill shorter than the head, rather stout, compressed, tapering. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly straight, being slightly convex toward the end, the ridge narrow and convex in its whole length, the sides convex towards the end, the edges sharp, the tip rather acute. Nasal groove extending to a little beyond the middle of the bill; nostrils, linear, lateral, submedial, pervious. Lower mandible with the angle long and narrow, the sides erect, the dorsal line sloping upwards, the edges a little inflected, the tip narrowed, the gap-line straight.

Head rather small, oblong, compressed. Neck shortish. Body compact, deeper than broad. Feet of moderate length, rather slender; tibia bare a short way above the joint; tarsus of ordinary length, compressed, anteriorly covered with broad scutella, posteriorly with smaller, and on the sides reticulated. Hind toe small and very slender; middle toe longest, and longer than the tarsus; inner toe considerably shorter than the outer; toes free, with numerous scutella above. Claws of moderate length, compressed, slightly arched, acute.

Plumage blended, slightly glossy above. Wings short and broad, tapering, rounded, the first and second nearly equal and longest. Tail very short, much rounded, of twelve feeble rounded feathers; the upper and lower tail-coverts nearly as long as the tail-feathers.

Bill black. Iris red. Feet bright yellowish-green, claws dusky. The head and all the lower parts are very dark purplish-grey, on the upper part of the head approaching to black, on the fore part of the neck faintly undulated with paler, on the sides and hind parts barred with greyish-white; the lower wing-coverts barred with grey and white; the lower tail-coverts of the latter colour. The hind neck and fore part of the back dark chestnut; the rest of the back and tail-coverts greyish-black, transversely barred with white. Wing-coverts and inner secondaries reddish-brown, with white spots; the other quills more dusky. The tail-feathers also reddish-brown, barred with dusky and marked with white spots.

Length to end of tail 6 inches; wing from flexure 3 7/8; tail 1 1/16; bill along the ridge 1/2, along the edge of lower mandible (4 1/2)/8; bare part of tibia 1/4; tarsus 1; hind toe and claw 1/2; middle toe and claw 1, outer toe and claw 7/8; inner toe and claw 5/8.

Young a few days old.

While yet covered with down, the young is black all over; the bill bright yellow, with the point of the upper mandible, and a band across the middle of the lower, black; the feet dull yellowish-green, the claws dusky.

Since the above was written, I have received a letter from my friend J. TRUDEAU, M. D., in which he says that his father shot a considerable number of these Rails last winter in the vicinity of New Orleans.

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