The water rail

David Chapman / 05 January 2015

While water rails usually live on reed beds and marshes, a cold spell might bring this beautiful bird to your garden in search of food. Here's how to spot a water rail.



During a cold snap of winter weather it is surprising what might literally drop in to take refuge in our gardens.  We are probably all familiar with an increase in the number of robins and thrushes but have you ever seen a water rail in your garden?

Read our guide to helping garden birds in winter.

Water rails are more at home skulking in reedbeds and marshes than exploring gardens but when water freezes over they are forced to leave the safety of their familiar habitat. They often migrate by night and come the morning can find themselves in just about any habitat.  On more than one occasion I have woken up to see a water rail prowling round the edge of our garden popping out to pick up seeds from underneath the bird feeder.

Usually, during the day, they come to their senses and head off to find a more suitable habitat but it is during such cold weather that we are most likely to get a good view of one of these secretive but beautiful birds.

The water rail has a long red bill, streaked flanks and a distinctive double white patch on its upright tail. When seen head on it becomes clear that the water rail is a very thin bird; this is obviously useful for picking a path between reed stems. Interestingly it is from the family of rails that we get the saying ‘as thin as a rail’.  

Since water rails live in reedbeds it is difficult for them to make eye-contact with each other so they have a loud call which sounds a bit like a long drawn out, high-pitched squealing piglet.  So don't be surprised if you wake up early one morning in January and hear what sounds like a piglet in your garden!

Read our guide to winter bird spotting.

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