I had just returned from a trip to New York for Thanksgiving when a friend stopped me in the grocery store and excitedly told me about that morning’s bird walk at Francis Bay. A pair of normally elusive clapper rails were not only visible that day, but actually began mating in plain view!
Of course I was jealous. I wanted to run right out there and see for myself. But you can’t expect birds to perform on demand, especially not ones that are normally so shy.
Clapper rails mostly live in swampy coastal areas. On St. John they stay low down in mangrove wetlands, walking around (they rarely fly) and using their long thin bills to pick up crabs, insects and small fish. Supposedly the saying “thin as a rail” refers to their ability to slip through small spaces in a tangle of intertwined roots. They tend to lurk in the shadows, and their coloring helps provide even more camouflage. They have loud voices though, and are more often heard than seen.
Except, it seems, during courtship. Like other birds and animals, a male clapper rail may have to behave aggressively and even fight over suitable nesting territory in order to attract females.
Once he has established his position, however, he can become less pugnacious and more seductive. According to the Audubon Field Guide, during courtship the male clapper rail approaches the female, points his bill down, and swings his head from side to side. He may also adopt attractive manly poses, for example, standing erect with his neck stretched and his bill open.
The male might also offer the female something to eat. Crustaceans are a favorite food, and there are lots of red fiddle crabs living in the mud surrounding the ponds. The male clapper rail could probably entice a female with some of these feisty little guys.
The clapper rail couple builds a monogamous bond through working together on building a nest, protecting the eggs and rearing their brood. As part of the courtship and mating process, some clapper rails will even work on synchronizing their calls, so they sound like only one voice.
We hear clapper rails calling all the time near our house. When we walk down by the black mangrove pond, the clattering they make in their throats sounds like a sudden burst of applause – thank you, thank you – or perhaps more likely, alarm. Either way, everyone knows you are there.
Sometimes it is so loud you think there must be hundreds of them around, though probably there are only a few making all that noise. Still, we can’t be sure because they mostly hide down among the mangrove roots, camouflaged and out of sight.
One group of researchers at Stanford suggested that the rails can get so used to being invisible within their normal habitat that they don’t realize they can be seen when they come out in the open. So what might seem like boldness or indifference to discovery may actually be lack of understanding that they are exposing themselves to viewers.
Visibility can be a problem because some people like to do more than watch. Clapper rails are also called marsh hens because they are about the size of chickens and have a similar taste which, at least in the past, has made them attractive to hunters.
Though I haven’t yet seen any of the seemingly uninhibited clapper rails in courtship mode myself, I did once catch a coy one taking a bath in the morning. You can see the racy video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2o7NLyRcQK0.
Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer and author of ‘The Wild Life in an Island House’ plus a new guide book ‘Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John’. firstname.lastname@example.org.