The Great Red-breasted Rail, or Fresh-Water Marsh-hen

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Birds of America

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


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[King Rail.]

[Rallus elegans.]


No doubt exists in my mind that WILSON considered this beautiful bird as merely the adult of Rallus crepitans, the manners of which be described, as studied at Great Egg Harbour, in New Jersey, while he gave in his works the figure and colouring of the present species. My friend THOMAS NUTTALL has done the same, without, I apprehend, having seen the two birds together. Always unwilling to find faults in so ardent a student of nature as WILSON, I felt almost mortified when, after having, in the company of my worthy and learned friend, the Reverend JOHN BACHMAN, carefully examined the habits of both species, which, in form and general appearance, are closely allied, I discovered the error which he had in this instance committed. Independently of the great difference as to size between the two species, there are circumstances connected with their habits which mark them as distinct. The Rallus elegans is altogether a fresh-water bird, while the R. crepitans never removes from the salt-water marshes, that are met with along our eastern Atlantic coasts, from the Jerseys to the Gulf of Mexico. Nay, the present species is found at considerable distances inland, where it breeds and spends the whole year; whereas the latter never goes farther from its maritime haunts than the borders of the salt-marshes, and this merely on certain occasions, when driven thither by the high risings of tides. The Fresh-water Marsh-hen, besides, is confined to the Southern States, a few stragglers only having been observed farther eastward than the State of Pennsylvania, and these only in fresh-water meadows.

So long ago as the year 1810, on the 29th of May, I caught one of these birds, a female, at Henderson, in the State of Kentucky, when I made the following memorandum respecting it:--"It is an excessively shy bird, runs with great celerity, and when caught, cries like a common fowl." It weighed eleven ounces avoirdupois; its total length was 20 1/2 inches, and its alar extent 22.

This species constantly resides in the fresh-water marshes and ponds in the interior of South Carolina, Georgia, the Floridas, and Louisiana, from which a few migrate, and probably breed as far to the eastward as the wet meadows of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, in the vicinity of which I killed one female, in New Jersey, a few miles from Camden, in July 1832, in company with my friends EDWARD HARRIS and Mr. OGDEN, of that city. On inquiring of numerous hunters, I was told by several of them that they now and then obtained a few of these birds, which they considered as very rare, and knew only by the name of "King Rails." On recently examining the museums of our eastern cities my friend JOHN BACHMAN saw only one specimen; and Mr. WILLIAM COOPER of New York assured him that he had never seen any other individuals than those sent to him from Charleston. Mr. BACHMAN was present at the killing of a specimen near Philadelphia, which was considered as a very old individual of the Rallus crepitans. In Louisiana, the Creoles know this bird by the name of Grand Rale de Prairie.

As the Fresh-water Marsh-hen is abundant in South Carolina, I shall attempt to describe its habits as observed in that State, both by myself and by my friend JOHN BACHMAN, Of whose notes, delivered to me for the purpose, I shall make free use. "Although not nearly so numerous as the other species, they are not rare in that country, in certain favourable situations. Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh-hen, and there it may be seen gliding swiftly among the tangled rank grasses and aquatic weeds, or standing on the broad leaves of the yellow cyamus and fragrant water-lily, or forcing its way through the dense foliage of pontederiae and sagittariae. There, during the sickly season, it remains secure from the search of man, and there, on some hillock or little island of the marsh, it builds its nest. In such places I have found so many as twenty pairs breeding within a space having a diameter of thirty yards. The nests were placed on the ground, and raised to the height of six or eight inches by means of withered weeds and grasses. The number of eggs was nine or ten. About the middle of March I found a few nests containing two or three eggs each; but, in my opinion, the greater number of these birds commence breeding about the middle of April. They appear to repair their nests from time to time, and to return to them several years in succession."

The young, which are at first black, leave the nest as soon as they burst the shell, and follow their mother, who leads them along the borders of the streams and pools, where they find abundance of food, consisting of grass-seeds, insects, tadpoles, leeches, and small crayfish. At this early period, when running among the grass, which they do with great activity, they may easily be mistaken for meadow-mice. My friend BACHMAN, who had several times attempted to raise these birds, with the view of domesticating them, did not succeed, principally, he thinks, on account of the difficulty of procuring enough of their accustomed food. They all died in a few days, although the greatest attention was paid to them.

When grown they feed on a variety of substances, and it has appeared to me that they eat a much greater proportion of seeds and other vegetable matters than the Salt-water Marsh-hens. It is true, however, that, in the gizzard of the latter we find portions of the Spartina glabra; but when that kind of food is not to be procured, which is the case during three-fourths of the year, they feed principally on "fiddlers," small fish, and mollusca. In the gizzard of the present species, besides the food already mentioned, I have always found a much greater quantity of the seeds of such grasses as grow in the places frequented by them. On one occasion I found the gizzard crammed with seeds of the cane (Arundo tecta); and that of another contained a large quantity of the seed of the common oat, which had evidently been picked up on a newly sown field adjoining to the marsh. In autumn I have killed this species in corn-fields, in the company of JOHN BACHMAN, PAUL H. LEE, Esq. and others. These birds are rarely shot by common gunners, on account of the difficulty of raising them, and because they generally confine themselves to places so swampy and covered with briars, smilaxes, and rough weeds, that they are scarcely accessible. But although they are thus safe from man, they are not without numerous enemies.

My friend BACHMAN once killed a large moccasin snake, on opening which he found an old bird of this species, that had evidently been swallowed but a short time before. Its feathers are frequently found lying on the banks of rice-fields, ponds, and lagoons, in places where the tracks of the mink plainly disclose the plunderer. The Barred Owl and the Great Horned Owl also occasionally succeed in capturing them in the dusk. "On one occasion," says my friend BACHMAN, in a note addressed to me, "while placed on a stand for deer, I saw a wild cat creeping through a marsh that was near to me, evidently following by stealthy steps something that he was desirous of making his prey. Presently he made a sudden pounce into a bunch of grass, when I immediately heard the piercing cries of the Marsh-hen, and shortly after came passing by me the successful murderer with the bird in his mouth."

"In seasons of great drought, when the marshes which are their favourite haunts become dry, these birds have been known entirely to disappear from the neighbourhood, and not to return until after heavy rams, having in the mean time, no doubt, retired to the shores of the larger and deeper ponds of the swamps of the interior."

The young of this species acquire the redness of their plumage during the first summer, and increase in size and beauty for several years, without experiencing any change in their colouring after the spring following that of their birth. The sexes are scarcely distinguishable otherwise than by the difference of size, the males being considerably larger than the females. I am not aware that this species raises more than one brood in the season, although, when its eggs have been destroyed, it may lay a second time.

The flight of this Rail resembles that of the salt-water kind, but is considerably stronger and more protracted. When suddenly flushed, they rise and go off with a chuck, their legs dangling beneath, and generally proceed in a straight line for some distance, after which they drop among the thickest grass, and run off with surprising speed. In several instances they have been known to stand before a careful pointer. They are less apt to take to the water than the Rallus crepitans, and are by no means so expert at diving. Their number does not appear to be diminished in winter by any migratory movements. Their cries, which do not differ much from those of the other species, are less frequently repeated after the breeding season.

Few birds afford better food than this species: during autumn, when, feeding chiefly on grass seeds, they are juicy and tender; in spring, however, they are less delicate. Their superiority in size over all other birds of the genus that occur in the United States, renders them valuable game to the knowing sportsman and epicure. Their eggs also are excellent as food, being much preferable to those of the common fowl.

I regret that I am obliged to conclude this account, without being able to describe the eggs, which, although well known to my friend JOHN BACHMAN, have not yet come under my inspection.

GREAT RED-BREASTED RAIL, Rallus elegans, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 27.

Male, 19, 25. Female, 18, 24.

From Texas to New Jersey, more common from Louisiana to North Carolina. Inland swamps and marshes. Once met with in Kentucky.

Adult Male.

Bill much longer than the head, slender, compressed, very slightly curved, deep at the base. Upper mandible with the dorsal line almost straight until towards the end, where it is slightly curved, the ridge flattish at the base, and extending a little on the forehead, convex towards the end; a deep groove runs on either side parallel to the ridge for two-thirds of the whole length; the edges inflected, with a very slight notch close to the tip. Nostrils lateral, linear, direct, open and pervious. Lower mandible with the angle very long, extremely narrow, the sides erect, slightly convex, the edges inflected, the tip narrowed.

Head small, oblong, much compressed. Neck long and slender. Body slender, much compressed. Feet long; tibia bare a considerable way above the joint; tarsus rather long, strong, compressed, anteriorly covered with broad scutella, posteriorly with smaller, and on the sides reticulated; hind toe very small and slender, middle toe longest, fourth considerably shorter, and but little longer than the second; toes free, scutellate above, compressed, granulate beneath; claws of moderate length, arched, slender, much compressed, acute, flat, and marginate beneath.

Plumage rather stiff, compact and glossed on the upper parts. Feathers of the head and neck short and blended; of the forehead with the shaft enlarged, and extended beyond the tip. Wings very short and broad; alula large; primaries curved, broad, tapering but obtuse, third longest, second scarcely shorter, first and seventh about equal; secondaries weak, broad, rounded. Tail very short, much rounded, of twelve feeble rounded feathers; the upper and lower coverts nearly as long as the tail-feathers.

Lower mandible and edges of upper brownish-yellow; ridge of upper, and tips of both, deep brown. Iris bright red. Feet yellowish-brown, tinged with olive; claws of the same colour. Upper part of head and hind neck dull brown, the bristle-like shafts of the frontal feathers brownish-black; a brownish-orange line from the bill over the eye; a broader band of the same colour from the lower mandible, the intermediate space dusky; chin white. The upper parts in general are streaked with brownish-black and light olive-brown, the two sides of each feather being of the latter colour. Wing-coverts dull chestnut, most of them irregularly tipped with brownish-white. Alula and primaries deep olive-brown; secondaries and tail-feathers like the back. Sides and fore part of the neck, and greater part of the breast, bright orange-brown; sides and lower wing-coverts undulated with deep brown and greyish-white; tibial feathers pale greyish-brown, faintly barred with darker, as is the hind part of the abdomen, the fore part being uniform pale greyish-brown; lateral lower tail-coverts white, each with a blackish-brown spot near the end; those in the middle barred with black and white.

Length to end of tail 19 inches, to end of claws 26, extent of wings 25; bill 2 5/6; tarsus 2 1/2, middle toe and claw 2 10/12; wing from flexure 7, tail 2 1/2. Weight 1 lb. 9 oz.

Adult Female.

The female, which is smaller, is similar to the male, but has the tints somewhat duller.

Length to end of tail 18 inches, to end of claws 22 1/2, extent of wings 24. Weight 1 lb. 2 oz.

Young in autumn.

The young in autumn and fully fledged resemble the female, but are duller in their colours.

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