Water Rail

Rallus aquaticus



This is a stout bird with a short tail and a longish bill that seems to curve downwards slightly. The sexes are similar; reddish-brown, streaky upperparts, blue-grey underparts, black and white barring on the flanks, a white undertail, red bill and reddish legs. Juveniles are similar to adults, although their faces are browner, there's a light stripe across the eye, and the bluish grey parts on the adult are paler on the young bird.


Dispersed across lowland Britain, with larger numbers in East Anglia. Breeding habitats are reedbeds and marshes with dense cover. Also tends towards freshwater such as lakes and ponds.


A timid bird whose calls are heard more than the bird is actually seen. It is usually alone when not breeding and is territorial in the winter. Its body is slender and is conducive to sliding through thick waterside vegetation; it's a regular short-distance swimmer. If it feels threatened, it will flee for cover with its head down. When flying, the legs and toes trail.


Can feed both on water and on land and diet consists mainly of small fish, freshwater shrimps, frogs, small snails, insects and their larvae. Also consumes fruit, carrion, and shoots and roots of plants, and can catch and devour small birds.


Nesting takes place close to water in thick cover. Female lays 6-11 eggs between March and June and incubates them for 19-22 days with some help from male. Hatchlings can usually fly after 20-30 days and independence takes about 55 days. Breeding season often continues through to August, allowing for a second brood.


Most birds in the region are resident, though an influx from northern and eastern Europe boosts numbers in October and November. Migrant birds depart in March and April. Notoriously challenging population to gauge, but it's thought that there are more than 1100 territories in Britain and 1000-2500 in Ireland.

Observation Tips

Winter is the optimal time for observation. The reedbeds and waterside vegetation on wetland reserves are great places to search. Birds may react to a mimic of their call, so if there's evidence of one in the area, it's worth trying one of their calls to incite an appearance.


The squeals and grunts of this bird are likened to a shrieking piglet. Also has more guttural calls, usually uttered from cover.
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