rail, common name for some members of the large family Rallidae, marsh and tropical forest birds that include the gallinule and the coot, two specialized rails. Rails are cosmopolitan in distribution, except in polar regions. Although migratory, they have small wings and are weak fliers, escaping danger by concealment rather than flight. They are protectively colored in drab browns and reds and have extremely slender bodies (whence the expression
thin as a rail) and strong legs, enabling them to dart through thick marsh vegetation undetected. Rails, also called mud hens or marsh hens, are omnivorous, hunting their food at nightfall. They may be divided into two major types: the long-billed rails, which include the Virginia (Rallus limicola), king, clapper, and water rails; and those with short, conical bills, including the sora (Porzana carolina), yellow, and black rails (called crakes in Europe.) Gallinules are rails that have webbed toes; they are more aquatic and less timid than those members of the family specifically called rails. They have bright forehead shields and are widespread in temperate and tropical regions. The common American gallinule, Gallinula chloropus, and the similar Eurasian moorhen are drab in color; the gaudier purple gallinule, Porphyrula martinica, found from Texas to Ecuador, has blue-green plumage and yellow legs. Fifteen species of extinct flightless rails are known, and a number of flightless rails and gallinules still exist. The rails are all considered good game birds and are perhaps the most widely distributed of all the avian families. Rails are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Gruiformes, family Rallidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology