The California Clapper Rail is one of three geographically isolated clapper rail subspecies in California. It is slightly larger and paler than the other two subspecies in the state—the Yuma Clapper Rail and the Light-Footed Clapper Rail—but just as close to the brink of extinction.
The California Clapper Rail is a squat, short-necked, and long-legged bird with a modest streak. Appearing mostly brownish in color from afar, when seen up-close it becomes apparent that the bird has an intricate beauty: a rust-colored breast, brown streaks along its olive wings, and black-and-white bars on its flanks not only make it a wonderful sight, but also help the species hide in the pickleweed and cordgrass that typify its preferred habitats.
Once common in coastal salt marshes in northern and central California, the California Clapper Rail has declined precipitously in both range and number. Hunters killed thousands of rails each week prior to 1900, and widespread urbanization and diking of wetlands led to massive destruction of the California Clapper Rail’s habitats. Only 15% of the San Francisco Bay’s original marshland remains today, and much of it is highly fragmented and altered. Furthermore, nonnative predators such as red foxes, Norway rats, and feral cats prey on clapper rails and their eggs.
In 1970 the California Clapper Rail was listed as an endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Since that time the species has seen population increases but also in some years heartbreaking, somewhat unexplained declines.
In the lands that currently comprise the Golden Gate National Parks, it is likely that the California Clapper Rail was once common throughout all three Counties. Today, it is quite rare in the Park: most of the suitable habitat has been lost, and the few remaining places are not thought to host resident populations of the species. However, on a lucky day you can still find them in certain park lands in San Mateo and Marin Counties.