This week, over fifty birders from across Ohio were treated to unprecedented looks at 2-3 YELLOW RAILS (well… except some or all were not rails!) hosted by a local farmer who’s son had found the birds in a patch of sorghum while setting up cattle fencing. These birds were vocalizing regularly, being flushed and seen at eye level from a few yards away, and were seen by many in fading light. Night after night, they persisted and put on a show for delighted onlookers including some of the best birders in the state.
But these were not Yellow Rails! At least not all of them, if we’re lucky. And it took four days and more than fifty visiting birders before everyone realized it!
So here’s how that happened.
The reported Yellow Rails were first found late in the day on Monday (1 September 2014) but not until Thursday night did someone notice that at least one of these birds was actually a male Button Quail (aka Chinese Painted Quail aka King Quail aka Coturnix chinensis) — an Asian species that is kept in captivity throughout the U.S. At best, there was a legit rail among them, but so far not hard evidence supports that scenario. Dave Smith of Tiffin, OH was able to get the following photo of the well seen male bird:
What’s that? You don’t think that bird in the photo above looks like a Yellow Rail?
Well wait until you see the females! The first photo below is a hen King Quail (Button Quail), and the second is a Yellow Rail:
Now, who wouldn’t have a hard time distinguishing between these two birds if one of them were flush out of tall grass at dusk!? Yikes!!!
Though not established in the U.S. (as far as I know) King Quail (aka Button Quail aka Coturnix chinensis) should definitely be considered when viewing or evaluating sight-only reports of out of place (or out of season) Yellow Rails — especially if wing details aren’t seen, aren’t reported, or if the white patches seem very atypical (this species comes in pied forms with white primaries and secondaries). Right now, most birders in the range of Yellow Rail may have never even heard of King or Button Quail, making the confusion all the more likely should they encounter a hen Coturnix chinensis in Yellow Rail habitat. So what should we look for to rule out escaped Button Quail?
Separating Yellow Rails from C. chinensis hens
In the case of the Ohio birds, there were some early warning signs that these weren’t rails. First, these birds belted out an unexpected 3-4 note descending series of squeaky vocalizations that seemed a bit inconsistent with the (non-clicking) vocalizations of Yellow Rail. There was also way too much flying around instead of running when pressed by people or cows walking through the grass, plus no early reports of white secondary patches when seen in flight. Plus, at least to my inexperienced eye, these quail struck me as significantly smaller than I had expected for Yellow Rail based on seeing online photos of in-hand Yellow Rails being banded.
Many reported seeing birds that fit the Yellow Rail description as far as overall body color and pattern, size and shape, but less than a handful report seeing pale secondaries. This is still a key field mark to look for when identifying Yellow Rail, however, there are variable pied morphs of button quail which have white primaries and secondaries. So the details of how much white was where on the wing is quite relevant and it’s worth noting any secondary identifying features like the bill details and upperpart pattern.
These quail were vocal, and their vocalizations were not all that different from some Yellow Rail vocalizations on xeno-canto.org and on the Sibley app (which many consulted and listened to in the field). Since most observers were unfamiliar with (if not completely unaware of) these Yellow Rail vocalizations, the vaguely similar quail vocalizations didn’t worry anyone enough to cause people to question the ID.
Yellow Rail (http://www.xeno-canto.org/140285):
King Quail (http://www.xeno-canto.org/194163):
In short, there are a few things to keep in mind when your Yellow Rail might be a button quail. First, knowing whether it’s way out of range for the time of year is a good start. Second, pay attention to those behavioral clues:
- Quail are flighty, rails are not.
- Quail are vocal, rails (during migration) are not as vocal.
- Quail are more clumsy than rails when moving through tall grass, which you can hear and see.
Separating the two is actually fairly straight forward when a bird is seen or heard well:
- Vocalizations should be diagnostic. Know both and get recordings for documentation (a camera in video mode works great in most cases).
- As far as I know, pied morph button quail rarely (or never) show white secondaries along side normal primaries. So noting the details of the white secondary patch and which feather are white (or not) may be the best route to a solid ID.
- Button Quail are smaller than Yellow Rails. They rarely push 40g (with hens being at the larger end of the spectrum), while Yellow Rails typically weigh 42g-50g+.
- The Sora-like yellow bills on Yellow Rail are distinct from the (typically) darker and smaller bill on King Quail.
Here’s how that wing should look, in case you were curious about the feather details. For more photos, including flight shots, check out this photo set from Louisiana during the 2013 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival (YRARF is here on Facebook):