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Effects of Management Practices on Wetland Birds:

Yellow Rail

Drawing by Patsy Renz: Yellow Rail

This report is one in a series of literature syntheses on North American grassland birds. The need for these reports was identified by the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture (PPJV), a part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The PPJV recently adopted a new goal, to stabilize or increase populations of declining grassland- and wetland-associated wildlife species in the Prairie Pothole Region. To further that objective, it is essential to understand the habitat needs of birds other than waterfowl, and how management practices affect their habitats. The focus of these reports is on management of breeding habitat, particularly in the northern Great Plains.

This resource is based on the following source:

Goldade, C. M., J. A. Dechant, D. H. Johnson, A. L. Zimmerman, B. E. Jamison, J. O. Church, and B. R. Euliss.  2002. Effects of management practices on wetland birds: Yellow Rail.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND.  21 pages.

This resource should be cited as:

Goldade, C. M., J. A. Dechant, D. H. Johnson, A. L. Zimmerman, B. E. Jamison, J. O. Church, and B. R. Euliss.  2002.  Effects of management practices on wetland birds: Yellow Rail.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/wetbird/yera/yera.htm (Version 12DEC2003).


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Effects of Management Practices on Wetland Birds:

Yellow Rail

Christopher M. Goldade, Jill A. Dechant, Douglas H. Johnson,
Amy L. Zimmerman, Brent E. Jamison, James O. Church,
and Betty R. Euliss

Series Coordinator: Douglas H. Johnson
Series Assistant Coordinator: Jill A. Dechant

Reviewer: Michel Robert

Range Map: Theodore A. Bookhout

Illustration: Patsy Renz

Funding: Prairie Pothole Joint Venture
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Geological Survey


Organization and Features of this Species Account

Information on the habitat requirements and effects of habitat management on wetland birds were summarized from information in more than 500 published and unpublished papers. A range map is provided to indicate the relative densities of the species in North America, based on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data. Although the BBS may not capture the presence of elusive waterbird species, the BBS is a standardized survey and the range maps, in many cases, represent the most consistent information available on species' distributions. Although birds frequently are observed outside the breeding range indicated, the maps are intended to show areas where managers might concentrate their attention. It may be ineffectual to manage habitat at a site for a species that rarely occurs in an area. The species account begins with a brief capsule statement, which provides the fundamental components or keys to management for the species. A section on breeding range outlines the current breeding distribution of the species in North America, including areas that could not be mapped using BBS data. The suitable habitat section describes the breeding habitat and occasionally microhabitat characteristics of the species, especially those habitats that occur in the Great Plains. Details on habitat and microhabitat requirements often provide clues to how a species will respond to a particular management practice. A table near the end of the account complements the section on suitable habitat, and lists the specific habitat characteristics for the species by individual studies. The area requirements section provides details on territory and home range sizes, minimum area requirements, and the effects of patch size, edges, and other landscape and habitat features on abundance and productivity. It may be futile to manage a small block of suitable habitat for a species that has minimum area requirements that are larger than the area being managed. The section on brood parasitism summarizes information on intra- and interspecific parasitism, host responses to parasitism, and factors that influence parasitism, such as nest concealment and host density. The impact of management depends, in part, upon a species' nesting phenology and biology. The section on breeding-season phenology and site fidelity includes details on spring arrival and fall departure for migratory populations in the Great Plains, peak breeding periods, the tendency to renest after nest failure or success, and the propensity to return to a previous breeding site. The duration and timing of breeding varies among regions and years. Species' response to management summarizes the current knowledge and major findings in the literature on the effects of different management practices on the species. The section on management recommendations complements the previous section and summarizes recommendations for habitat management provided in the literature. The literature cited contains references to published and unpublished literature on the management effects and habitat requirements of the species. This section is not meant to be a complete bibliography; a searchable, annotated bibliography of published and unpublished papers dealing with habitat needs of wetland birds and their responses to habitat management is posted on the main page under the section Searchable Bibliography.


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Yellow Rail
(Coturnicops noveboracensis)
GIF - Yellow Rail range map.
Figure.  Breeding distribution of the Yellow Rail in the United States and Canada. Shaded area represents the estimated breeding area. Map adapted from Bookhout 1995.

Keys to management include protecting existing wetlands; controlling encroachment of woody vegetation in wet meadows; maintaining standing water in wet meadows, quaking bogs, and fens; and maintaining a dense layer of residual vegetation.

Breeding Range:


Yellow Rails breed from southcentral Northwest Territories through eastern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, southern Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine, and south to northern New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and northeastern Montana (National Geographic Society 1999). A small, separate breeding population is located in southcentral Oregon. (See figure for estimated breeding area in the United States and Canada.)

Suitable habitat:


Yellow Rails prefer wet meadows, fens, boggy swales, floodplains, montane meadows, and emergent vegetation in fresh and brackish wetlands (Swales 1912, Peabody 1922, Roberts 1932, Fryer 1937, Devitt 1939, Walkinshaw 1939, Terrill 1943, Huber 1960, Bent 1963, Houston 1969, Stewart 1975, Salt and Salt 1976, Anderson 1977, Ripley 1977, Stenzel 1982, Niemi and Hanowski 1983, Bart et al. 1984, Janssen 1987, Gibbs et al. 1991, Berkey et al. 1993, Stern et al. 1993, Bookhout 1995, Robert and Laporte 1997, Prescott et al. 2001). Yellow Rails prefer wetlands that are dominated by sedges (Carex spp.) or grasses, that contain a canopy of residual vegetation required for nesting, and that contain shallow water or damp ground (Peabody 1905, 1922; Maltby 1915; Devitt 1939; Huber 1960; Lane 1962; Stalheim 1974; Stewart 1975; Ripley 1977; Elliot and Morrison 1979; Stenzel 1982; Stenzel and Bookhout 1982; Bart et al. 1984; Bookhout and Stenzel 1987; Gibbs et al. 1991; Burkman 1993; Stern et al 1993; Robert and Laporte 1997; Popper and Stern 2000, Robert et al. 2000, Prescott et al. 2001). Although sedges often are the dominant plant species in Yellow Rail nesting habitat, Yellow Rails also nest in grasses, rushes (Juncus spp.), and bulrushes (Schoenoplectus and Scirpus spp.) (Arnold 1896, Walkinshaw 1939, Terrill 1943, Houston 1969, Grimm 1991, Nelson 1991, Robert et al. 2000, Lundsten and Popper 2002).

The presence of Yellow Rails in a wetland usually is related to water depth (Bart et al. 1984, Burkman 1993, Robert et al. 2000). Yellow Rails nest in areas with standing water or saturated ground. Water depths at nest sites ranged from 0 to 20 cm (Peabody 1905, 1922; Maltby 1915, Peters 1918; Devitt 1939; Walkinshaw 1939; Elliot and Morrison 1979; Stenzel 1982; Nelson 1991; Popper and Stern 2000; Robert et al. 2000). Water depths in areas occupied by breeding Yellow Rails ranged from 0-46 cm (Peabody 1925, Fryer 1937, Stalheim 1974, Stenzel 1982, Bart et al. 1984, Hanowski and Niemi 1986, Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Gibbs et al. 1991, Burkman 1993, Stern et al. 1993, Robert et al. 2000, Lundsten and Popper 2002).

Yellow Rails often inhabit areas where water depth fluctuates throughout the breeding season. An area used by Yellow Rails may have 20-30 cm of standing water in the spring and no standing water by July or September (Stenzel 1982, Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Robert et al. 2000). Water depths at nesting areas also may vary because of tidal changes, winds, and precipitation (Robert et al. 2000, Lundsten and Popper 2002). In estuary marshes in Quebec, Yellow Rails occupied wetlands in which water depths were usually ≤12 cm, but in which water could become deeper (as high as 43 cm) depending on high tides and precipitation. Yellow Rails may respond to changes in water levels by building deep (13-16 cm) nests, as measured from the top to the bottom of the nest. However, nests still may occasionally succumb to flooding (Robert et al 2000).

Several authors have described the vegetation characteristics of areas where Yellow Rails have been observed and/or were breeding. In North Dakota, Yellow Rails were observed in a large fen comprised of sedges, rushes, and grasses (Peabody 1922). Small springs supported cattails (Typha spp.), and a wet meadow was dotted with small areas of willow (Salix spp.), rose (Rosa sp.), and aspen (Populus spp.) (Peabody 1922). Berkey et al. (1993) stated that Yellow Rails prefer fens (which are a rare habitat in North Dakota) but also will use wet meadows with standing water.

In a northwestern Minnesota wetland, vegetation where Yellow Rails were observed was composed of 90% sedges and 10% softstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) and hardstem bulrush (S. acutus) (Huber 1960). At the same site, several years later, vegetation where Yellow Rails were observed was identified as cattail, reedgrass (Calamagrostis sp.), reed (Phragmites sp.), bulrush, sedge, and Lasiocarpes (author's term that probably referred to woolyfruit sedge [Carex lasiocarpa]) (Stalheim 1974). In northern Minnesota, mean vegetation measurements from 100 sampling points within 10 Yellow Rail territories were 122.4 cm vegetation height, 16% ground cover (coverage of live vegetation with a total height of ≤10 cm), 12.6 cm water depth, 77.3 cm phanerophyte height, 357.5 graminoid stems/m², 6.1 forb stems/m², and 7.2 phanerophyte stems/m² (Hanowski and Niemi 1988). Phanerophytes were defined as shrubs, forbs, or graminoids >40 cm high and present each year. Forb species within Yellow Rail territories were arrowhead (Sagittaria spp.), wild calla (Calla palustris), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), mints (Lamiaceae), parsley (Apiaceae), tufted loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora), bedstraw (Galium spp.), and goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Phanerophyte species were willow, and cattails (Typha latifolia) (Niemi and Hanowski 1983).

In Michigan, wetlands used by Yellow Rails were dominated by woolyfruit sedge (Bart et al. 1984). Of 52 vocalizing males, all but one were located in nearly monotypic stands of woolyfruit sedge; the remaining Yellow Rail was located in areas of sedges and blueberry (Vaccinium sp.). Average vegetation composition measurements from 100 plots within a 30.25-ha area were 87% woolyfruit sedge; 4.3% bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis); 7.5% sand island; and 1.2% Canadian rush (Juncus canadensis), cattail, or bog birch (Betula pumila) (Stenzel 1982). Total stem density was 1400 stems/m² (Stenzel and Bookhout 1982). Yellow Rails preferred areas with high percentages of woolyfruit sedge and low percentages of shrubs (Burkman 1993).

The general habitat used by Yellow Rails in three separate areas in southern Quebec was dominated by chaffy sedge, alkali bulrush (Scirpus maritimus), Mackenzie's sedge (Carex mackenziei), saltmarsh spike rush (Eleocharis halophila), saltmeadow rush (Juncus gerardii), hairy sedge (Carex lacustris), bluejoint, water sedge (Carex aquatilis), prairie cordgrass, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), baltic rush, and American burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis) (Robert et al. 2000). Average vegetation measurements at the three sites ranged from 91.7 to 130.5 cm stem height, 782.8 to 3503.9 stems/m², and 9.9 to 18.3 cm canopy height; water depth ranged from 1.9 to 2.5 cm. Six nests found at one site were in areas characterized by prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), chaffy sedge (Carex paleacea), marsh straw sedge (Carex hormathodes), and baltic rush (Juncus balticus) (Robert et al. 2000). All six nests occurred in areas with a high percentage of live vegetation and a well-developed canopy. In southeastern Quebec, one nest was found beneath a canopy of dead softstem bulrush and surrounded by living softstem bulrush that was 1.2-1.8 m in height (Terrill 1943).

In eastern Ontario, one Yellow Rail nest was discovered in a wetland characterized by moderately heavy cover of grasses, sedges, rushes, and bulrushes (Elliot and Morrison 1979). In another eastern Ontario wetland, one nest was located in the center of a dense grass clump that was 38 cm tall (Devitt 1939). The area was predominantly grasses and sedges, with occasional willows. In Alberta, Yellow Rails were located in seasonal wetlands and wetlands dominated by sedges or a mix of sedges, cattails, and bulrush more often than semipermanent or permanent wetlands or wetlands dominated by cattail or bulrush (Prescott et al. 2001). Yellow Rails used areas with significantly less open water than unused areas (10.6% vs. 24.8%).

In eastern and central Maine, three sites occupied by Yellow Rails were large (>400 ha), sedge- and grass-dominated floodplains adjacent to free-flowing streams (Gibbs et al. 1991). A fourth site was a smaller wetland near a stream. Dominant vegetation at these sites included woolyfruit sedge, beaked sedge (Carex rostrata), silvery sedge (Carex canescens), Hayden's sedge (Carex haydenii), blister sedge (Carex vesicaria), bog rush (Juncus effusus), blackgirdle bulrush (Scirpus atrocinctus), bluejoint, upright sedge (Carex stricta), threeway sedge (Dulichium arundinaceum), and bald spikerush (Eleocharis erythropoda). Average stem densities ranged from 85.5 stems/m² to 150.0 stems/m². Height of the tallest stem ranged from 0.6 m to 1.1 m and the dead vegetation mat ranged from 11.3 cm to 21.5 cm in height.

In southcentral Oregon, Yellow Rails occupied wet meadows located near cold water springs, seeps, flowing creeks, or river floodplains (Stern et al 1993). Vegetation was characterized by analogue sedge (Carex simulata), blister sedge, and beaked sedge. The average percent cover for live and dead vegetation at 42 nests (active and inactive) was 48.4% and 48.7%, respectively (Lundsten and Popper 2002). Percent cover of bare ground was 2.8%. Of the live vegetation at the nests, 34% was sedges; 10% was common spikerush (Eleocharis palustris), rush (Juncus spp.), or pondweed (Potamogeton aquatilis); 2% was grasses, and 1% was forbs. Vegetation height at 42 nest sites ranged from 15 to 93.3 cm. A table near the end of this account lists the specific habitat characteristics for Yellow Rail by study.

Area requirements:


Size of wetlands used by Yellow Rails can vary. During the breeding season, Yellow Rails have been found in sedge meadows as small as 0.5 ha (Alvo and Robert 1999). In Minnesota, 16 wetlands used by Yellow Rails for nesting ranged from 24 to 1000 ha and averaged 231.9 ha (Hanowski and Niemi 1986). In Maine, wetlands occupied by Yellow Rails ranged from 14 to 840 ha (Gibbs et al. 1991). In Michigan, temporary wetlands used by breeding Yellow Rails were ≤20 ha (Bart et al. 1984). Bart et al. (1984) suggested that Yellow Rails can be gregarious. Several pairs of Yellow Rails will nest in a small area (30 ha) (Peabody 1905, Robert 1996).

In Michigan, the average home range of five males was 8.29 ha; home ranges overlapped (Stenzel 1982). In the same study, four mated males had an average home range of 7.8 ha (Bookhout and Stenzel 1987, Bookhout 1995). In a 530-ha wetland in Quebec, three males had home ranges of 8.6, 13.7, and 19.8 ha, respectively, (Robert 1996). In a 30-ha wetland in Quebec, two males had home ranges of 1.6 and 4.6 ha, respectively, and their home ranges overlapped (Robert 1996). In Michigan, four females, on average, used <1 ha per female prior to and during incubation (Stenzel and Bookhout 1982). During the brood-rearing period, a female and her brood used 1 ha (Stenzel 1982). Of 3 areas used by females, average size ranged from 0.2 to 1.3 ha, depending on stage of nesting (Bookhout 1995).

Brood parasitism:
No records of intra- or interspecific brood parasitism exist. Yellow Rails are not suitable hosts for Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) because Yellow Rail young are semiprecocial, whereas cowbird young are altricial.

Breeding-season phenology and site fidelity:


In the southern portion of their breeding range (Michigan, Minnesota, and North Dakota), Yellow Rails may arrive in late March but usually arrive from late April to late May, and depart from mid-August to late October (Roberts 1932, Walkinshaw 1939, Stalheim 1974, Stenzel 1982, Savaloja 1984, Janssen 1987, Bookhout 1995). In the northern portion of their breeding range (Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec), Yellow Rails arrive from late April to late May and depart from September to early November (Arnold 1896, Salt and Salt 1976, Robert 1997). The disjunct population in southcentral Oregon arrives in mid-April and departs in mid-September (Popper and Stern 2000).

Yellow Rails may renest after an unsuccessful initial nest attempt (Stenzel 1982). Yellow Rails are single-brooded (Bookhout 1995). They may build more than one nest, using the additional nest as a brood nest (Stalheim 1974, Stenzel 1982). Chicks are moved to a brood nest 1-2 d after hatching, and brood nests lack a vegetation canopy (Stenzel 1982, Bookhout 1995). One female and her brood used a brood nest 17 m from the original nest (Stenzel 1982). The brood nest appeared to be one year old and did not have a canopy.

Information concerning site fidelity of Yellow Rails is scant. Of 134 males banded in southern Michigan, two were recaptured the year following banding (Bookhout 1995). Of 130 Yellow Rails banded along the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec, seven were recaptured at the same site in subsequent years, and one was recaptured at a site within 125 km of the capture site in a subsequent year (Robert and Laporte 1999). The average recapture rate in southcentral Oregon was 11% of 242 captured rails (Lundsten and Popper 2002). The average distance between capture locations from one year to the next for the 27 returning rails was 547 m.

Species' response to management:


Burning aids in preventing the encroachment of woody vegetation into wet meadows and in removing mats of dead vegetation that become too thick for nesting (Stalheim 1974, Savaloja 1981, Stenzel 1982, Burkman 1993, Bookhout 1995). Dead vegetation can fill in a wetland and act like a wick to increase evaporation (Stalheim 1974, Savaloja 1981). The removal of excessive residual vegetation may benefit Yellow Rails during periods of low water by increasing the water level in the wetland (Stalheim 1974). In Michigan, Yellow Rails avoided burned areas immediately postburn, but favored burned areas over unburned areas after one growing season (Burkman 1993).

In Quebec, areas burned and mowed on a regular basis were not used for nesting until at least one full growing season after burning due to the removal of the residual vegetation that may be required for nesting (Robert et al. 2000). Yellow Rails may be attracted to revegetated, recently burned areas late in the breeding season due to increased food quantity and availability, and the removal of thick residual vegetation may facilitate movement (Robert and Laporte 1999). Savaloja (1981) suggested that if burning occurs after spring arrival and territory establishment, Yellow Rails will continue to use burned areas, but if a wetland is burned before spring arrival, Yellow Rails will use available unburned areas. Burkman (1993) stated that prescribed fire encourages favorable habitat conditions for Yellow Rails by causing an increase in woolyfruit sedge and maintaining density of grasses, rushes, and other sedges.

Yellow Rails have been found in wet meadows that were mowed the previous fall (Peabody 1905, 1922; Maltby 1915), but no studies have examined the effects of mowing on Yellow Rails. Mowing of wet meadow areas may encourage the growth of sedges and grasses (Larson 1986). In Wisconsin, a wet meadow that was mowed in July to control woody vegetation had more grasses and sedges than nearby unmowed areas (Larson 1986). In North Dakota, Yellow Rails used areas with 10 cm of standing water and coarse grass that was annually mowed (Peabody 1905, 1922; Maltby 1915). In Saskatchewan, one nest was located on the remains of a haystack, both of which were trampled by cattle (Symons 1956). In southern Quebec, no nests were found in an area that was burned and mowed on a regular basis, apparently because the area lacked a canopy of residual vegetation (Robert et al. 2000). Yellow Rail mortality due to mowing during the breeding season has been documented in Quebec (Alvo and Robert 1999).

Peabody (1922) believed that the replacement of coarse grass by fine grass in a large wetland area in North Dakota may have caused Yellow Rails to abandon some areas. He believed this replacement may have been caused by intensive grazing or possibly intensive mowing. No studies have been conducted on the effects of grazing on Yellow Rails. Grazing by cattle may reduce vegetation height and percent cover of emergent vegetation and increase disturbance (Robert 1997). Grazing by cattle also may reduce the senescent layer of vegetation that is preferred by breeding Yellow Rails (Lundsten and Popper 2002).

The effect on Yellow Rails of pesticide use in wetland areas is unknown (Ripley 1977). More research on the effects of pesticides and other contaminants is needed (Eddleman et al. 1988).

Efforts to maintain standing water in wetland areas and/or to reverse long-term dry conditions should be beneficial to Yellow Rails (Burkman 1993). Large fluctuations in water levels may cause otherwise suitable breeding habitat to become undesirable to Yellow Rails (Lundsten and Popper 2002). In Oregon, the primary threat to Yellow Rails is the drainage of wetlands for use as cropland (Stern et al. 1993). Yellow Rails may be negatively impacted by the manipulation of water levels in an attempt to create a hemi-marsh (wetland containing approximately 50% open water and 50% emergent vegetation) or deep-water marsh for waterfowl use (Bookhout 1995, Alvo and Robert 1999). Yellow Rails use wetlands that are shallower and have a greater density of emergent cover than those typically used by waterfowl (Alvo and Robert 1999).

Collisions with towers, wires, or other structures may cause injury or death to Yellow Rails. Thompson and Ely (1989) reported that >30 Yellow Rails struck a television tower near Topeka, Kansas over the course of one fall season. Individual Yellow Rails have been found dead under television towers in Iowa (Dinsmore et. al 1987), North Dakota (Avery and Clement 1972), Saskatchewan (Belcher 1962), and Texas (Pulich 1961). In Texas, 10 Yellow Rails were found dead and four were apparently stunned after striking a television tower (Pulich 1961). An injured Yellow Rail that might have struck a wire or building was captured on the University of Michigan campus (Wood 1909).

Management Recommendations:

Loss of wetlands is the most serious factor affecting Yellow Rail populations (Anderson 1977, Bookhout 1995, Alvo and Robert 1999). Freshwater wetlands and estuaries should be protected from drainage, channelization, and other forms of destruction (Anderson 1977, Eddleman et al. 1988, Stern et al. 1993, Bookhout 1995, Popper and Stern 2000). The enforcement of the 1985 "Swampbuster" Farm Act would protect a maximum acreage of wetlands from further drainage for agricultural use (Eddleman et al. 1988). In North Dakota, Yellow Rails were restricted to natural fen areas (Stewart 1975). Wetland manipulation that destroys natural fens to create deeper, more permanent water would destroy this preferred habitat (Berkey et al. 1993).

It is unknown if Yellow Rails will utilize restored wetlands, but restored wetlands that are very isolated from natural wetlands may not contain the plant seeds necessary for revegetation (Galatowitsch and van der Valk 1996). Active planting may be necessary to establish wet meadow and shallow emergent vegetation (Knutsen and Euliss 2001). Control of unwanted, competitive species may be needed to restore wet-meadow vegetation. Galatowitsch and van der Valk (1994) present a detailed explanation of restoration methods and provide specific recommendations for establishing vegetation in restored wetlands.

In some geographical areas, Yellow Rails seem to prefer specific plant species and wetland types. Management practices that reduce those plant species should be avoided. In Michigan, any management technique that would reduce the abundance of woolyfruit sedge (a plant species that seems to be preferred by Yellow Rails in Michigan) would reduce Yellow Rail habitat (Stenzel 1982). Some sedge species, such as woolyfruit sedge and beaked sedge, can be successfully planted in restored wetlands with appropriate seed storage and adequate control of competitive weeds for at least two growing seasons (Budelsky 1998). Generally, sedge seeds stored in a wet location at 4°C maintain a high viability for up to 2.5 yr. Robert et al. (2000) suggested that habitat selection was based not on particular plant species, but rather on plant physiognomy, species composition, and stem density. Rather than relying on Carex species as the only indicator of suitable habitat, attention must be given to maintaining plant structure, maximum water levels, and the presence of a senescent canopy.

Efforts to maintain standing water in wetland areas and attempts to reverse long-term dry conditions would be beneficial to Yellow Rails (Burkman 1993). Manipulation of water levels that would cause a wetland to become too dry or too wet for use by Yellow Rails should be avoided (Stenzel 1982, Lundsten and Popper 2002). One example of these manipulations would be an attempt to create a hemi-marsh or deep-water marsh for use by waterfowl (Bookhout 1995). This practice could have a negative impact on Yellow Rails, but more research on the effects of waterfowl management practices on Yellow Rails is needed (Eddleman et al. 1988). Careful manipulation of wetland/impoundment complexes is necessary to accommodate both waterfowl and rails. Rails apparently prefer to forage at the interface between moist soil and marsh habitats. Optimal interspersion of vegetation and water can be created by the gradual dewatering of topographically diverse wetlands which provide the maximum amount of this type of edge habitat. Land leveling (i.e., reducing the topographic heterogeneity) to facilitate irrigation or water level manipulations reduces opportunities to create this type of edge habitat. Wetland management techniques should maximize the coverage of emergent perennial vegetation that is used as nesting habitat by Yellow Rails (Eddleman et al. 1988).

The use of controlled burns in wetland areas can be a useful management tool for maintaining Yellow Rail habitat by reducing the encroachment of woody vegetation into wetland areas, reducing the percentage and height of shrubs in wet meadows, and removing the excessive residual vegetation that can fill in a wetland and act like a wick to increase evaporation (Vogl 1964, Stalheim 1974, Savaloja 1981, Stenzel 1982, Eddleman et al. 1988, Burkman 1993). Acidic water caused by burning may discourage some shrubs such as alder (Alnus sp.), willow, and bog birch, while encouraging sedge species (Burkman 1993). Burned areas should be monitored for the encroachment of woody vegetation as well as changes in the overall composition of the herbaceous layer. Regeneration and spread of shrubs in an area can be used as an indicator of how often an area should be burned (Burkman 1993). Dense vegetation in a wet meadow that is not burned periodically may cause a fire to burn too hot (Eddleman et al 1988). A hot fire will remove the root layer, thus requiring a longer time period for regrowth. A large wetland should be burned in rotations so that unburned portions will be available for Yellow Rails that arrive at the start of the breeding season (Burkman 1993). During periods of low water, removal of excessive residual vegetation may increase water levels and improve nesting habitat (Stalheim 1974). Education of the general public on the importance of fire as a habitat management tool also would be beneficial in gaining acceptance of burning wetlands (Burkman 1993).

Mowing is a possible management technique for controlling the growth of willow and cottonwood (Populus spp.) in wet meadows. The dense regrowth of sedges and grasses that is caused by mowing may prevent shrub seedlings from becoming established (Larson 1986). However, accidental death to Yellow Rails caused by the mowing of wet meadows during the breeding season has been reported (Alvo and Robert 1999).

The effects of grazing on Yellow Rails requires further research (Eddleman et al. 1988). Grazing by cattle may reduce vegetation height and percent cover of emergent vegetation, reduce the amount of senescent vegetation, and increase disturbance (Robert 1997, Lundsten and Popper 2002). Grazing also may cause the replacement of coarse grass by fine grass, thereby reducing habitat suitability (Peabody 1922).

Excessive human disturbance (e.g., by overzealous birdwatchers) can trample vegetation in the nesting area and cause a major disturbance to breeding activity (Stenzel 1982). To avoid this inadvertent disturbance and possible destruction of well-hidden nests, people should be discouraged from entering a wetland where Yellow Rails are breeding (Grimm 1991).

Mortality due to fences can be prevented by reviewing fence construction plans and modifying plans for proposed management projects (Allen and Ramirez 1990). Fences placed through wetlands should be replaced or marked to make them conspicuous and to decrease likelihood of bird/fence collisions. Power lines should not be constructed through flight corridors used heavily during bird migrations or within 1 km of known historical high-water marks of wetlands or dry basins known to hold water intermittently (Malcolm 1982).


Table.  Yellow Rail habitat characteristics.

Author(s) Location(s) Habitat(s) Studied* Species-specific Habitat Characteristics
Arnold 1896 Manitoba Wetland Nested in long grass in the dry area of a wetland
Bart et al. 1984 Michigan Wet meadow, wetland Occupied wetlands contained sedges (Carex spp.), mostly woolyfruit sedge (C. lasiocarpa), and blueberry (Vaccinium sp.); wetlands were ≤20 ha in size and 20 cm deep; 51 of 52 vocalizing males were located in nearly monotypic stands of woolyfruit sedge, and one male was in a mixed stand of sedge and blueberry; of the 52 vocalizing males, 48 were located in wetlands containing standing water and four were in areas of saturated ground
Bookhout 1995 Rangewide Wet meadow, wet meadow hayland, wetland Used fresh and brackish wetlands, unmowed wet meadows, and wet meadows that had been cut for hay the previous year
Burkman 1993 Michigan Burned wetland, wetland Preferred areas with higher percentages of woolyfruit sedge and lower percentages of shrubs than found in adjacent areas; used areas with standing water; dominant vegetation in the study area was woolyfruit sedge
Devitt 1939 Ontario Wetland Nested in a dense clump of grass located near the edge of a wetland; grass was 38 cm tall, the rim of the nest was 7.6 cm above ground, and the bottom of the nest rested on the ground; surrounding dead vegetation was bent over, forming a canopy over the nest; there was no standing water under the nest but the soil was saturated; area surrounding the nest was covered with grasses, sedges, and an occasional willow (Salix spp.)
Elliot and Morrison 1979 Ontario Wetland Nested in a wetland with moderately heavy cover of rushes (Juncus spp.) and sedges; nest was concealed by residual vegetation and was 5 cm above water that was 5-10 cm deep
Fryer 1937 Manitoba Wetland Used two areas, one was a mixture of fine and coarse marsh grass that was approximately 46-61 cm tall in 5-10 cm of water, and the second area was heavy, coarse grass in 13-15 cm of water
Gibbs et al. 1991 Maine Floodplain, wetland Occupied three large (>400 ha), sedge- and grass-dominated floodplains adjacent to free-flowing streams and a smaller wetland near a stream; specific habitat used consisted of damp, low-lying areas in otherwise dry portions of floodplains; dominant vegetation at sites were: woolyfruit sedge, beaked sedge (Carex rostrata), silvery sedge (C. canescens), Hayden's sedge (C. haydenii), blister sedge (C. vesicaria), bog rush (Juncus effusus), blackgirdle bulrush (Scirpus atrocinctus), bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis), upright sedge (Carex stricta), threeway sedge (Dulichium arundinaceum), and bald spikerush (Eleocharis erythropoda); stem density ranged from 85.5 to 150.0 stems/m²; height of tallest stem ranged from 0.6 to 1.1 m; height of dead vegetation mat ranged from 11.3 to 21.5 cm; water depth ranged from 0.8 to 10.2 cm
Grimm 1991 Wisconsin Wet meadow, wetland Occupied a site dominated by reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) with small patches of common threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens), and sedge, and which contained a significant amount of residual vegetation
Hanowski and Niemi 1986, 1988 Minnesota Wetland Occurred in wetlands; average vegetation measurements from 100 sampling points within 10 territories were 122.4 cm vegetation height, 16% ground cover, 12.6 cm water depth, 77.3 cm phanerophyte height (shrubs, forbs, or graminoids >40 cm tall and present each year); average stem density measurements were 357.5/m² graminoids, 6.1/m² forbs, 7.2/m² phanerophytes; average wetland size was 231.9 ha; most common forb species was tufted loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora), and most common phanerophytes were broad-leaved cattail (Typha latifolia) and willow; sixteen wetlands used for nesting ranged from 24 to 1000 ha and averaged 231.9 ha
Houston 1969 Saskatchewan Wetland Nested in long grass on damp ground at the edge of water
Huber 1960 Minnesota Wetland Occupied a wetland characterized by 90% sedge and 10% hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus)
Janssen 1987 Minnesota Wetland Found in large, grassy wetlands
Lane 1962 Manitoba Bog, wetland Nested on the top of a low hummock in an area dominated by sedges; nest was concealed by a canopy of dead and living grass, and water depth under the nest was 20 cm; a second nest was in a quaking bog that contained willows up to 3 m tall; nest was 15 cm above water that was 5 cm deep; bog was surrounded by willows, and young shoots of hoary willow (Salix candida) grew near the nest; used another area dominated by sedges with a few scattered willows
Lundsten and Popper 2002 Oregon Wet meadow Average percent cover for live and dead vegetation at 42 nests (active and inactive) was 48.4% and 48.7%, respectively, and percent cover of bare ground was 2.8%; live vegetation at nests was 34% sedges, 10% pondweed (Potamogeton aquatilis) or rushes (common spikerush [Eleocharis palustris], rush [Juncus spp.]), 2% grasses, and 1% forbs; vegetation height ranged from 15 to 93 cm; average water depth from 660 calling locations was 7.3 cm, ranging from 0 to 24 cm
Maltby 1915 North Dakota Wet meadow, wet meadow hayland, wetland Nested in a wetland over water 3-5 cm deep; one of 12 nests was found in an area that had been mowed the previous year; most nests were covered by a canopy of dead vegetation
Nelson 1991 Minnesota Wetland Nested in wetland; nest was 19 cm above the water in a tussock of grass; water was 10 cm deep under the nest, and the nest was concealed by a canopy of dead grass
Niemi and Hanowski 1983 Minnesota Wetland Occurred in wet areas; common forb species within territories were mints (Lamiaceae), parsley family (Apiaceae), wild calla (Calla palustris), arrowhead (Sagittaria spp.), and tufted loosestrife; common phanerophyte species within territories were broad-leaved cattail and willow; mean habitat variables were as follows: 130 cm vegetation height, 15% ground cover, 7.5 cm water depth, 95 cm phanerophyte height
Peabody 1905 North Dakota Wet meadow, wet meadow hayland, wetland Occupied areas of soft, tall meadow grass; nested in previously mowed, green, growing grass with water <10 cm deep; nest was covered by a thick canopy
Peabody 1922 North Dakota Wet meadow, wet meadow hayland, wetland Used grassy areas that were annually mowed; average water depth was 10 cm; entire area contained sedge, rushes, and grasses with small open areas containing cattails (Typha spp.) and scattered areas of willow, rose (Rosa sp.), and aspen (Populus sp.)
Peabody 1925 North Dakota Wet meadow, wetland Occupied a 6-m wide margin of coarse grasses that contained dead, matted vegetation; water depth was 36 cm
Peters 1918 Minnesota Wetland Nested in a wetland; water under nest was approximately 20 cm deep
Popper and Stern 2000 Oregon Montane meadow Average percent cover at 25 nests (active and inactive) were 48.7% live vegetation, 49.7% dead vegetation, and 1.6% bare ground; of the live vegetation, 26.1% was analogue sedge (Carex simulata), 5.6% common spikerush, 5.5% Northwest Territory sedge (C. utriculata), and about 2-3% cover each of blister sedge, baltic rush, and Sierra rush; water depths at active nests were 0.5-5.0 cm
Prescott et al. 2001 Alberta Wetland Used wetlands dominated by sedge and a mix of cattail, bulrush and sedge more often than wetlands dominated by cattail or bulrush; used seasonal wetlands more often than semipermanent or permanent wetlands; used areas with significantly less open water than unused areas (10.6% vs. 24.8%)
Ripley 1977 Rangewide Hayland, wetland Occupied wet meadows or hayland; nests were above flooded ground or on damp soil
Robert et al. 2000 Quebec Wetland Used areas with chaffy sedge (Carex apleacea), alkali bulrush (Scirpus maritimus), Mackenzie's sedge (Carex mackenziei), saltmarsh spike rush (Eleocharis halophila), saltmeadow rush (Juncus gerardii), hairy sedge (Carex lacustris), bluejoint, water sedge (Carex aquatilis), prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), baltic rush, and American burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis); average vegetation measurements at three sites ranged from 91.7 to130.5 cm stem height, 782.8 to 3503.9 stems/m², and 9.9 to 18.3 cm canopy height; water depth ranged from 1.9 to 2.5 cm
Roberts 1932 Minnesota Wet meadow Occupied wet meadows in which grass or sedges grew in about 5 cm of water and residual vegetation formed a dense layer
Salt and Salt 1976 Alberta Wetland Used grassy wetlands with little or no standing water during the breeding season
Savaloja 1981 Minnesota Wet meadow, wetland Used burned areas if burning was conducted after territories were established, used unburned areas is burning was conducted before arrival
Stalheim 1974 Minnesota Wetland Used areas with cattail, reedgrass (Calamagrostis sp.), reed (Phragmites sp.), bulrush (Scirpus sp.), sedges, and Lasiocarpes [author's term that could be referring to woolyfruit sedge]; water depths ranged from about 36 cm in early May to about 10 cm in September
Stenzel 1982, Stenzel and Bookhout 1982, Bookhout and Stenzel 1987 Michigan Wet meadow, wetland Four calling males occupied areas averaging 6.5 cm water depth (based on 10 measurements/calling location); greatest water depth recorded at a calling site was 46 cm; water depths at seven nest sites ranged from 2 to 4 cm; vegetation measured at 100 sample points within the study area was characterized by average values of >90% woolyfruit sedge and 1398 stems/m²
Stern et al. 1993 Oregon Floodplain, montane meadow Occupied montane meadows that were located near cold water springs, seeps, flowing creeks or river floodplains; vegetation was characterized by analogue sedge, blister sedge, and beaked sedge; water depths ranged from 2 to 30 cm
Stewart 1975 North Dakota Fen, wetland Used fens or boggy swales fed by spring water; vegetation consisted of cattail and softstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) with intervening expanses of northern reedgrass (Calamagrostis stricta inexpansa), water sedge, beaked sedge, cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) and water hemlock (Cicuta sp.)
Swales 1912 Michigan Wet meadow, wetland Used wetland and wet, low field characterized by coarse grasses, forbs, and sedges
Symons 1956 Saskatchewan Wet meadow hayland, wetland Used an area dominated by wire grass (no scientific name given) with willow on the dry edges; one nest that had been trampled by cattle was found on the remains of a haystack
Terrill 1943 Quebec Wetland Nested in a dense patch of softstem bulrush; nest was covered with a canopy of dead rushes and was lightly resting on the ground; area was almost a monotypic stand of bulrush except for the margins that contained a few shrubs and forbs
Walkinshaw 1939 Michigan Wetland Nested in a dense mass of fallen softstem bulrush; the ground beneath the nest was damp and covered with moss; prairie sedge (Carex prairea) was also within 5 cm of the nest; preferred the drier parts of large wet meadows

* In an effort to standardize terminology among studies, various descriptors were used to denote the management or type of habitat. "Idle" used as a modifier (e.g., idle tallgrass) denotes undisturbed or unmanaged (e.g., not burned, mowed, or grazed) areas. "Idle" by itself denotes unmanaged areas in which the plant species were not mentioned. Examples of "idle" habitats include weedy or fallow areas (e.g., oldfields), fencerows, grassed waterways, terraces, ditches, and road rights-of-way. "Tame" denotes introduced plant species (e.g., smooth brome [Bromus inermis]) that are not native to North American prairies. "Hayland" refers to any habitat that was mowed, regardless of whether the resulting cut vegetation was removed. "Burned" includes habitats that were burned intentionally or accidentally or those burned by natural forces (e.g., lightning). In situations where there are two or more descriptors (e.g., idle tame hayland),the first descriptor modifies the following descriptors. For example, idle tame hayland is habitat that is usually mowed annually but happened to be undisturbed during the year of the study.


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