Daily Bird nesting season special: Clapper Rail
by Genevieve Nuttall
June 17, 2022 — Despite its large size, Clapper Rail is not an easy bird to locate. These marsh birds are known for their elusive nature and are more often heard than seen. The grasses that make up salt marshes hide them well and provide crucial habitat for feeding and nesting.
To find a Clapper Rail in Connecticut, visit well-preserved salt marsh habitat. Clapper Rails can be found at Hammonassett Beach State Park in Madison, Barn Island in Stonington, Sandy Point in New Haven, the East River marsh in Guilford, and at Connecticut Audubon’s Coastal Center at Milford Point.
To find a Clapper Rail, listenfor its distinct call first: a boisterous grunt calls accompanied by “klacking” noises that sound like kek-kek-kek. You can find a recording of the call here.
Clapper Rail may be difficult to put your eyes on, even if it sounds like it is right in front of you. But when you see it, you’re unlikely to mistake it for anything else. It has the body of a chicken with a long, pointed bill good for probing for insects or crabs in the water and mud. Both females and males can be identified by a grayish-brown plumage with dark stripes lining the belly.
Although they have the general appearance of a shorebird, Clapper Rails belong to the Rallidae family, which consists of various terrestrial or aquatic rails and coots.
You can generally spot these migratory birds from April to late summer in Connecticut, and most migrate southward after the breeding season is over. The northern range of Clapper Rails does not extend much past Connecticut, so we are lucky to have the opportunity to see them in our state. Many individuals stay along the coast of southern United States into Central America year-round.
During the breeding season, a male and female will work together to raise young. Nests are constructed in the marsh, and the adults use grasses and sedges to weave a basket-like nest into the ground. These nests are well-hidden and blend perfectly into the vegetation.
The female will lay up to 16 eggs per clutch, and the eggs hatch after 3-4 weeks of incubation. Clapper Rail nestlings are precocial, meaning they are able to walk and feed shortly after hatching. After just one day of care from the parents, the puffy, black nestlings are ready to leave the nest and learn the ways of their new marsh habitat. If a nest is flooded or preyed upon, many pairs will nest again until they succeed.
Conservation Status: The IUCN status for Clapper Rail is “Least Concern.” In the past, wetland damage, hunting, and egg collecting posed major threats to this species. Current regulations have helped population numbers remain stable, but Clapper Rails are still susceptible to the effects of sea level rise and wetland pollution and degradation, and they will not thrive in damaged marsh areas. Population numbers are not well-understood since the birds are difficult to find.
Genevieve Nuttall is a former Osprey Nation coordinator for Connecticut Audubon.