Yellow Rail in Carden

Ron Pittaway


First published in the Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, May 2018, Number 277

Yellow Rail illustration by Ross D. James

Introduction: The Yellow Rail is one of North America’s most elusive and sought-after birds. The Sedge Wren Marsh along Wylie Road on the Carden Alvar is the most reliable place in southern Ontario to hear Yellow Rails in spring. Below are tips and background information to help birders hear and appreciate Yellow Rails.


Occurrence: The first record of a Yellow Rail for the Carden Alvar was one heard in May 1991 at the Sedge Wren Marsh. It is now almost annual at the marsh from late April to late May. The earliest record is 27 April 2003. One evening in May, Jean Iron and I heard Yellow Rails at three locations in Carden: Sedge Wren Marsh, Prospect Marsh and Cranberry Lake. In years of high water levels, it is heard less often or goes unrecorded. These Yellow Rails are migrants presumably going to the coastal marshes of James and Hudson Bays where they arrive in June.


Habitat: Yellow Rails require damp or shallow sedge/grass marshes with little or no standing water, and having a canopy of dead vegetation from previous years. Rarely seen, the rails usually sing and move hidden under the thatch layer. The Yellow Rail’s need for shallow grassy marshes and its narrow tolerance of water level changes make it a habitat specialist. A wetland may be suitable one year, but too wet or too dry the next year. Water levels were high in Carden in 2017 and no Yellow Rails were reported.


Song: Male Yellow Rails utter a rapid 5-note clicking tic-tic, tic-tic-tic song sounding like two stones or quarters being tapped together. They are vocal from just before sunset, often all night, early morning, and sometimes on overcast days. Its ticking can be confused with the kid-ick, kid-ick, kid-ick song of the male Virginia Rail. Listen to a Yellow Rail ticking in Carden and see its spring habitat in Jean Iron’s video.        


Breeding: The Yellow Rail has never been found breeding in Carden. It was mapped there as a possible breeder during the second breeding bird atlas 2000-2005 (Tozer 2007). Breeding Yellow Rails are very vocal in June and July, so suspect nesting only if singing is heard over an extended period of time in summer. Historically, it nested nearby at the vast Holland River Marsh which flows into Cook’s Bay, Lake Simcoe. On 12 June 1938, TOC members Ott Devitt and Dick Ussher found the first nest and eggs for Canada near Bradford in Simcoe County (Devitt 1939). Hugh Currie, Herb Elliott and Alvaro Jaramillo heard and saw one near Bradford in Simcoe County on 29 May 1981. It occurred in both the Simcoe and York portions of the Holland Marsh (Devitt 1967). The Yellow Rail was found at the Holland Marsh during the first atlas 1980-1985, but not detected there in the second atlas 2000-2005. Much of the marsh was drained long ago for market gardens.


Special Concern: About 90% of the Yellow Rail’s breeding range is in Canada and the estimated Canadian breeding population is around 5,000 pairs (Environment Canada 2013). The Yellow Rail is designated a species of Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and by the province of Ontario. Special Concern is a species that may become Threatened or Endangered. The TOC follows OFO’s Code of Ethics which states: “Limit the use of playbacks or other methods of attracting birds. Never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.”


Night Listening: Experience an evening adventure of songs and calls in May at the Sedge Wren Marsh. You could hear a Yellow Rail plus Sora, Virginia Rail, American Bittern, Sedge Wren, Ruffed Grouse, American Woodcock, Sandhill Crane, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Common Nighthawk.


Acknowledgements: I thank Glenn Coady, Hugh Currie and Joan Winearls for historical information.




Devitt, O.E. 1939. The Yellow Rail breeding in Ontario. Auk 56:238-243.


Devitt, O.E. 1967. The Birds of Simcoe County, Ontario. Brereton Field Naturalists’ Club, Barrie.


Environment Canada. 2013. Management Plan for the Yellow Rail. (Coturnicops noveboracensis) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Environment Canada. Ottawa.


Tozer, D.C. 2007. Yellow Rail in M.D. Cadman, D.A. Sutherland, G.G. Beck, D. Lepage and A.R. Couturier, (Eds.). Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2000-2005. Bird Studies Canada. Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature.


For more information Please see Ron Pittaway's Carden Alvar Birding Guide