Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE GREAT RED-BREASTED RAIL, OR FRESH-WATER MARSH-HEN.
RALLUS ELEGANS, Aud.
PLATE CCCIX.--MALE AND YOUNG.
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
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.
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
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.
The female, which is smaller, is similar to the male, but has the tints
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.