Notes from the Field | Rally the Rallidae

Californica clapper rail
California clapper rail at Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland. Photo by Jon Backus.

If you were to venture out onto the shoreline of the Bay along certain salt marshes you just might be lucky enough to hear an abrupt and loud sound — “KAAK KAAK KAKAK!!!!!”

You would be hearing California’s very own Railus longirostris obsoletus, or the more commonly known California clapper rail. It’s not the type of bird that one would expect to win any popularity contests or Ms. Bird U.S.A. What with its secretive nature, it prefers to hide amongst the reeds and cordgrass deep within a salt marsh.

The California clapper rail is not much of a looker — except for its long orange beak and white rump, these birds blend into the foliage perfectly. Despite living exclusively in marshes, the clapper rail isn’t very good at swimming or flying. But, this chicken-like marsh bird has quite the following.

This sub species of the more common East Coast Clapper Rail is endangered with their population only numbering around 1,000 birds. Their family, Rallidae, has historically lost more species than any other family of birds. This is not surprising because many of these rails had a remarkable tendency to colonize remote islands, diversify, and then lose, or almost lose the ability to fly. Rails range in size from the tiny black rail to the extremely rare Takahes of southern New Zealand.

The history of the decline of the California clapper rail is linked to the large human migration to the bay area that occurred during the gold rush in the 1850’s. It just so happened that our clapper rail tastes a lot like chicken. The rail became a delicacy served up to people living in San Francisco, and with hundreds of thousands of acres of marshland ringing the bay there were no shortage of clapper rails to go around.

Luckily, the wholesale slaughter of these birds came to an end with the passing of the Lacey Act (and later the Endangered Species Act) which was meant to preserve game birds and water fowl and is now used to protect and preserve wildlife AND plant life. But, threats continue today, mainly from the loss of the bird’s habitat. The secretive nature and inability to fly very well does not make it easy to for it to escape this destruction.

But, all is not lost for our marsh chicken, there has been a massive effort by the federal and state government along with other organizations to protect, monitor, and save this bird from extinction. (From March through July is California clapper rail breeding season, so if you do see or hear a rail at this time please try to keep your distance so they can have a successful season.)

If you would like to learn more about the California clapper rail or any of the other unique flora and fauna that live in bays marshland come out and volunteer with me on our Community Restoration Programs where you can help turn the tide by restoring habitat.