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Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh-hen, and there it may be seen gliding swiftly among the tangled rank grasses and aquatic weeds, or standing on the broad leaves of the yellow cyamus and fragrant water-lily, or forcing its way through the dense foliage of pontederiae and sagittariae. There, during the sickly season, it remains secure from the search of man, and there, on some hillock or little island of the marsh, it builds its nest. In such places I have found so many as twenty pairs breeding within a space having a diameter of thirty yards. -- Bachman in Bent 1926
This large rail, noted for its striking appearance, secretive behavior, and association with fresh and brackish marshes, was first described by John J. Audubon in 1835. It has a distinctive courtship call, heard day or night, and feeds largely on crustaceans and aquatic insects. The King Rail is widely distributed in the eastern U.S., with strongholds along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, and in Florida. Northern populations are migratory. Despite this broad geographic range, King Rail populations have declined alarmingly in the past 30 years, likely owing to loss of wetlands; this is the most threatened rail in N. America. Despite this, the species is a game bird in some 13 Gulf and Atlantic coast states, although rarely hunted. Vernacular names include marsh hen, mud hen, and rice chicken (Meanley 1969).
At least two subspecies are recognized: Rallus elegans elegans of North America and R. e. remsdeni of Cuba (AOU Check-list, 1957); R. e. tenuirostris of central Mexico is a possible third. The amount of hybridization with sympatric Clapper Rails (Rallus longirostris) needs further study.