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Western Water Rails - Secretive Wetland Birds

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The Western Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) is a secretive bird that generally skulks around at the base of reeds in shallow water, although it can swim and fly when necessary. These birds are not to be confused with the rails that trains run on - both words derive from French, but water rails are named after 'raale' meaning 'rattle' (after one of their call sounds) while railway lines are named after 'reille' meaning 'iron rod'.

These birds can be found across Europe and Central Asia. Their range stretches from North Africa to Norway, and as far east as the west of China. The global population is estimated to be around one million birds, so they have been classed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. However, their population is decreasing - they are vulnerable to cold weather, and cannot feed in flooded conditions, plus their reedbed habitat is at risk, eg from marsh drainage programmes.

Western Water Rails are similar in shape to moorhens, although they are slightly smaller. They have a brown back and a grey front, plus a long red beak. Females and males are similar in appearance. They are well-camouflaged among the reeds when feeding in shallow water, so they are not often easy to see. However, you might hear their distinctive pig-like squeal before you spot them running between feeding sites.

These birds are omnivorous. They eat the new shoots of aquatic vegetation such as watercress, and they eat berries and seeds. They also eat snails and insects, plus freshwater fish and shrimp. They may even eat small birds and carrion. Some members of the species stay close to where they hatched, such as in the UK, while others migrate, eg from Scandinavia to Ireland. They are usually solitary birds, except during the breeding season, or in cold winters when flocks of up to 30 birds may gather together.

Western Water Rails build their nests on the ground among reeds. The female lays up to 11 eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and finding food. The eggs hatch after about three weeks, and the chicks have black, fluffy feathers. They are fed by their parents for a few days, then they learn to feed themselves. They can fly when they are about a month old. A pair of Western Water Rails may have two clutches of eggs in a season. The oldest Western Water Rail known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was eight years old.

In the UK, Western Water Rails are most often found on the east coast, around East Anglia in England. However, they are also visitors to nature reserves including Titchfield Haven on the south coast and Burton Mere in the north west.

The Rail Family

There are 12 other members of the Rallus genus and they are all of a similar shape, with long legs, short tails and long beaks. Different species are different in colour, but their plumage usually features greys and browns like their Western Water Rail cousin.

The Virginia Water Rail (Rallus limicola), which is found in the USA, is classed as Least Concern and its population is increasing. However, other members of the genus are not so fortunate.

The Eastern Water Rail (Rallus indicus) that is found in China, Japan and Burma, is currently of Least Concern but its population is decreasing. The same is true of the Mangrove Rail (Rallus longirostris) that is found around the coast of South America and the Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) that is mainly found in Jamaica and at the east coast of the USA. The African Rail (Rallus caerulescens) is also classed as Least Concern.

The King Rail (Rallus elegans) of North America, Ridgway's Rail (Rallus obsoletus) of the east coast of the USA and Mexico, and the Mexican Rail (Rallus tenuirostris) are all Near Threatened and their populations are decreasing. The Austral Rail (Rallus antarcticus) of Argentina and Chile and the Madagascar Rail (Rallus madagascariensis) that is found only on Madagascar are classed as Vulnerable, as there are fewer than 10,000 birds known in the wild.

The Plain-flanked Rail (Rallus wetmorei) is found only on the coast of Venezuela and the Bogota Rail (Rallus semiplumbeus) is found only in Colombia in South America. Their populations are small and decreasing, so they are classed as Endangered. Conservation efforts to protect their habitats are ongoing.

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