Bird of the Day: Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus – Linnaeus, 1758)

Rallids or Rallidae, are a large cosmopolitan family of small to medium-sized birds. The family exhibits considerable diversity and the family also includes the crakes, coots, and gallinules. They mostly occupy dense vegetation in damp environments near lakes, swamps, or rivers. They are slim with slender legs. Their laterally flattened bodies are an adaptation to life in wet reedbeds and marshes, enabling them to slip easily through the dense semi-aquatic vegetation.
Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)They all are skulking species, its streaked plumage making it difficult to see in its wetland habitat. They all are very secretive in nature, and are then mostly heard rather than seen and being Crepuscular (Active in twilight hours) is just great for photographers to cry alone!!!!. Adding to that their skittishness makes them the hard target to shoot. Slightest of movement or noise will make them again disappear in thick reeds.

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus – Linnaeus, 1758) is smaller and distinctly slimmer than the moorhen, the water rail is a highly secretive inhabitant of freshwater wetlands.

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

The rails are a bird family comprising nearly 150 species. Although the origins of the group are lost in antiquity, the largest number of species and the most primitive forms are found in the Old World, suggesting that this family originated there. However, the genus Rallus, the group of long-billed reed bed specialists to which the Water Rail belongs, arose in the New World. Its Old World members, the Water, African and Madagascar Rails, form a superspecies, and are thought to have evolved from a single invasion from across the Atlantic. Genetic evidence suggests that the Water Rail is the most closely related of its genus to the Pacific Gallirallus rails, and is basal to that group. The Water Rail was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 under its current scientific name, Rallus aquaticus. The binomial name is the Latin equivalent of the English “Water Rail”.
The subspecies R. a. indicus has, in addition to its distinctive plumage, very different vocalisations to the other subspecies, and it was considered a separate species in early works, including the first edition (1898) of Fauna of British India, but later demoted to a subspecies by E. C. Stuart Baker in the second edition (1929). It was restored as a full species, the Eastern Water Rail, R. indicus, by Pamela Rasmussen in her Birds of South Asia (2005). Rasmussen, an expert on Asian birds, also renamed the other forms as the Western Water Rail. Her treatment has not otherwise been widely adopted, but is followed in Birds of Malaysia and Singapore (2010). A 2010 study of molecular phylogeny further supported the possibility of specific status for R. a. indicus, which is estimated to have diverged from the western forms around 534,000 years ago. The paper also suggested that the differences between the three other races were clinal, and that they should all be merged into R. a. aquaticus.

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

The Water Rail can readily be distinguished from most other reed bed rails by its white undertail and red bill; the latter is a little longer than the rest of the rail’s head (55–58% of the total) and slightly down-curved. The somewhat similar Slaty-breasted Rail of tropical Asia has a stouter bill, a chestnut crown and white-spotted upperparts. Juvenile and freshly moulted Water Rails may show a buff undertail like Spotted Crake, but that species’ plumage is spotted with white, and it has a much shorter, mainly yellowish bill. The range of the Water Rail does not overlap with that of any other Rallus species, but vagrants could be distinguished from their American relatives by the lack of rufous or chestnut on the closed wing.

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)


There are four recognized subspecies, one of which is particularly distinctive.

  • R. a. aquaticus (Linnaeus, 1758). This is the nominate subspecies that breeds in Europe, North Africa, Turkey, western Asia to the Caspian Sea and western Kazakhstan, and in a narrow band east to central Siberia.
  • R. a. hibernans (Salomonsen, 1931). The Icelandic race, which has slightly warmer brown upperparts than the nominate form. The bars of the flanks are dark brown, not black, and the bill is somewhat shorter; the grey of the underparts may have a brown tinge.
  • R. a. korejewi (Zarudny, 1905) (includes the dubious forms deserticolortsaidamensis and arjanicus). This subspecies breeds in south central Asia from southern and eastern Iran east to western China, and in the Indian subcontinent in Kashmir and Ladakh. It is slightly larger than the nominate race, with paler brown upperparts and slightly paler slate underparts. It has a weak brown stripe through the eye.
  • R. a. indicus (Blyth, 1849), (includes the dubious form japonicus). Also known as the Eastern Water Rail or Brown-cheeked Rail, this distinctive race breeds in northern Mongolia, eastern Siberia, northeast China, Korea and northern Japan. It differs from the slightly smaller nominate form through its paler upperparts, brown-tinged underparts and a brown stripe through the eye. Compared to R. a. korejewi, it is darker above, has a browner breast, white on the throat and a more obvious brown eyestripe. As indicated above, it has different vocalisations to the other forms, and is sometimes given full species status, although its behaviour, nest and eggs are identical to those of the other races.
Myself waiting to photograph Water Rail ( Photo Courtesy: Yagnesh Bhatt)

Myself waiting to photograph Water Rail ( Photo Courtesy: Yagnesh Bhatt)

But still its’ worth the pain(which still exist on my both leg) of sitting still in freezing water knee deep for nearly 6 hours (3 hrs each in morning and evening)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…..……. in the wetlands of Amreali Dist. Gujarat India

Virtually nothing has been studied on this species in India. Out of three species I got Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) and Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) hardly photographed or seen in India.

Thanks to Vir Joshi and Chetan M Vala

Gallery: Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus – Linnaeus, 1758)

More Information on Water Rail on AVIS-IBIS.

Further Reading on Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus – Linnaeus, 1758)

  • Brambilla M; Rubolini D , (2004), Water Rail Rallus aquaticus breeding density and habitat preferences in northern Italy., Ardea, 92: 11 – 18.
  • Carpen, E., R. Serra, G. Isani. , (1995), Heavy metals in some species of waterfowl of northern Italy., Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 31: 49 – 56.
  • Chester M. Fennell , (1960), Recent Records of the Little Owl and Water Rail in Korea, The Condor, 62:4: 409 – 409.
  • Chris Kightly; Steve Madge; Dave Nurney , (1998), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), POCKET GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF BRITAIN AND NORTH-WEST EUROPE;, 87.
  • Cordonnier, P. , (1983), [Note on the growth of Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) chicks.], Alauda, 51: 309 – 312.
  • Craig Robson , (2005), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), BIRDS OF SOUTH-EAST ASIA; New Holland Publishers Ltd, : 40.
  • De Kroon G. H. J. , (2004), A comparison of two European breeding habitats of the Water Rail Rallus aquaticus., Acta Ornithologica, 39:1: 21 – 27.
  • de Kroon, G. H. J. , (1986), Moult and feather growth in the Water Rail Rallus aquaticus on the Waddensea Island of Vlieland., Ringing & Migration, 7: 57 – 59.
  • De Kroon, G. H. J. , (1984), [Migration and wintering of Rallus aquaticus in Europe.], Beitrage zur Vogelkunde, 30: 97 – 110.
  • Afanasyev, V. T. , (1994), [The biology of the Little Crake and Water Rail in the Sumy Region.], Berkut, 3: 15 – 19.
  • del Marmol, P. , (1992–1993), [Recovery results of Moorhens, Gallinula chloropus and other Rallidae, ringed in Belgium.], Gerfault, 82-83: 1 – 23.
  • Dombrowski, A., M. Rzepala, A. Tabor. , (1993), [Use of playback in estimating breeding populations of the Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), Little Crake (Porzana parva) and Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus).], Notatki Ornitologiczne, 34: 359 – 369.
  • Endo, K., et al. , (1984), [Breeding records of the Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) in Tochigi Pref., Honshu.], Tori, 33: 75 – 77.
  • Ernst S , (2002), Water-Rail (Rallus aquaticus), Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) and Little Crake (Porzana parva) in the Saxon Vogtland region., Mitteilungen des Vereins S achsischer Ornithologen, 9: 77 – 86.
  • Faralli, U., R. Spacone. , (1989), [Census of the winter population of Rallus aquaticus of the Montepulciano Lake (Central Italy).], Ricerche Biol. Selvaggina, 16: 333 – 336.
  • Fuertes B;GarcA-a J;Colino JM; , (2002), Use of fish nets as a method to capture small rails, Journal of Field Ornithology, 73:2: 220 – 223.
  • Gerard H. J. de Kroon and Maria H. J. Mommers , (2005), Biology and Breeding Ecology of the East Asiatic Water Rail on Shunkunitai Island, Hokkaido, Japan, Journal of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, 37:1: 30 – 42.
  • Haass, C. , (1982), The dependence of the Water Rail, Rallus aquaticus, on the water level., Anzeiger der Ornithologischen Gesellschaft in Bayern, 21: 129 – 136.
  • Inglis CM; , (1900), Occurrence of the Water-Rail Rallus aquaticus in Tirhut, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 13:2: 379.
  • Jenkins RKB; , (1999), The breeding biology of the Water Rail Rallus aquaticus in Britain and Ireland, Bird Study, 46:3: 305 – 308.
  • Alfadhel A , (2006), The Water Rail as an avian predator., Phoenix, 22: 2 – 4.
  • Jenkins RKB; Ormerod SJ , (2002), Habitat preferences of breeding Water Rail., Bird Study, 49: 2 – 10.
  • Jenkins RKB;Buckton ST;Ormerod SJ; , (1995), Local movements and population density of Water Rails Rallus aquaticus in a small inland reedbed, Bird Study, 42:1: 82 – 87.
  • Jenkins RKB;Ormerod SJ; , (2002), Habitat preferences of breeding Water Rail Rallus aquaticus:
  • Jermaczek, D. , (1993), [Nature values of the Llanka river valley near Tworzym (West Poland).], Przegl. Przyr., 4(2): 15 – 20.
  • Joseph Kren , (2001), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), BIRDS OF THE CZECH REPUBLIC; Christopher Helm Publishers Ltd, : 115.
  • K.Mullarney; L.Svensson; D.Zetterstrom; P.J.Grant , (1999), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), COLLINS BIRD GUIDE – BRITAIN & EUROPE; Collins, : 115.
  • Krys Kazmierczak; Ber van Perlo , (2000), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), A FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT; Yale University Press, : 108.
  • Lama S; , (1993), Recently seen!, Nepal Bird Watching Club Newsletter, 2:1: 2 – 3.
  • M. MCMINN, M. PALMER, J. A. ALCOVER , (2005), A new species of rail (Aves: Rallidae) from the Upper Pleistocene and Holocene of Eivissa (Pityusic Islands, western Mediterranean), Ibis, 147:4: 706 – 716.
  • Murphy C; , (1976 ), Grey Herons eating Water Rails .
  • Andreas, U. , (1996), [Breeding behaviour of Water Rail Rallus aquaticus: results of observation in aviary.], Journal of Ornithology, 137: 77 – 90.
  • Musil, P. , (1993), [Methodical problems with estimation of abundance in Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus).], C.S.O. News, 36: 42 – 49.
  • Nagahisa Kuroda , (1993), Morpho-anatomy of the Okinawa Rail Rallus okinawae, Journal of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, 25:1: 12 – 27.
  • Olioso, G. , (1996), [Data on the breeding of water birds in Vaucluse, South-East France.], Faune de Provence, 17: 71 – 76.
  • Pintar, M. , (1986), [The Water-Rail (Rallus aquaticus) as predator of 72 anurans.], Okol. Vogel, 8: 237 – 242.
  • Polak M. , (2005), Temporal pattern of vocal activity of the Water Rail Rallus aquaticus and the Little Crake Porzana parva in the breeding season, Acta Ornithologica, 40:1: 21 – 26.
  • Punjabi H; , (1997), Sighting of Water Rail Rallus aquaticus near Mumbai, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 94:1: 156.
  • Ranjit Manakadan and S. Sivakumar , (2004), Sighting of Water Rail Rallus aquaticus Linnaeus, 1758, in Sriharikota Island, Nellore district, Andhra Pradesh, India, INDIAN BIRDS, 1:1-2: .
  • RF Porter; S.Christensen; P.Schiermacker-Hansen , (2004), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), BIRDS OF THE MIDDLE EAST; Poyser, : 62.
  • Robson C; , (2000), From the field: Nepal, Oriental Bird Club Bulletin, 31:June: 51.
  • Sackl P; Bozic L; Stumberger B , (2003), Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla on the lower Neretva river: notes on a possible breeding location in southern Dalmatia, Acrocephalus, 24 (116): 21 – 27.
  • Baker ECS; , (1926), The game birds of the Indian Empire. Vol 5. the waders and other semi-sporting birds. Part 1, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 31:2: 233 – 238.
  • Salim Ali; S Dillon Ripley  , (1980), No. 327. Turkestan Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus korejewi ) Zarudny, Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Volume 2 (Megapodes to Crab Plover ): 149.
  • Salim Ali; S Dillon Ripley  , (1980), No. 328. Indian Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus indicus ) Blyth, Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Volume 2 (Megapodes to Crab Plover ): 151.
  • Sigmund L. , (1958), Postembryonic development in the Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), SYLVIA, 15: 85 – 118.
  • Sontikov, V. N. , (1995), [The Little Crake Porzana parva, Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla, and Water Rail Rallus aquaticus in the Kirov Region.], Russian Journal of Ornithology, 4: 151 – 152.
  • Sontikov, V. N. , (1995), [The Little Crake Porzana parva, Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla, and Water Rail Rallus aquaticus in the Kirov Region.], Russian Journal of Ornithology, 4(3/4): 151 – 152.
  • Stanford JK; , (1937), Some rare birds in Northern Burma, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 39:2: 395 – 397.
  • Surmacki, A. , (1998), Breeding avifauna of small mid-field ponds in North-western Poland., Acta Ornithologica, 33: 149 – 157.
  • Waller, C. , (1991), Water Rail catching and killing Water Shrew., Suffolk Birds, 40: 144 – 145.
  • Woo-Shin Lee; Tae-Hoe Koo; Jin-Young Park , (2000), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), A FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF KOREA; LG Evergreen Foundation,Korea.
  • Barman R;Saikia P;Singha HJ;Talukdar BK;Bhattacharjee PC; , (1995), Study on the population trend of waterbirds at Deepar Beel Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam, Pavo, 33:1&2: 25 – 40.
  • Becker, P. , (1995), Identification of Water Rail and Porzana crakes in Europe., Dutch Birding, 17: 181 – 211.
  • Bozic L , (2002), Zimsko Aitetje mokoajev Rallus aquaticus v Sloveniji [Winter census of the Water Rail Rallus aquaticus in Slovenia], Acrocephalus, 23 (110-111): 27 – 33.
  • Brambilla M. & Rubolini D. , (2004), Water Rail Rallus aquaticus breeding density and habitat preferences in northern Italy., Ardea, 92:1: 11 – 17.