The Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) is a bird that you might enjoy trying to spot at local nature reserves (Adel Dam, Staveley, and St. Aidan’s are all places where I have seen them). Although I should say that doing so can be challenging and sometimes requires a good deal of patience. But it’s worth it - this is a striking bird that has a surprising ‘dark side’!

A little smaller than a Moorhen, Water Rails have similar substantial feet with long toes that enable them to move quickly in shallow water and over boggy, wet ground. This makes them well adapted to their favoured habitat - densely vegetated reedbeds and marshlands. They are well camouflaged for these environments and, when combined with their generally secretive nature, you will need a bit of luck and to be paying attention to get a sighting. Perhaps the easiest way to detect the presence of a Water Rail is from their unusual call that has been likened to a squealing pig:

Water Rails are omnivorous and have an eclectic diet that can include insects, molluscs, small fish, amphibians, and vegetation (e.g., seeds, berries, shoots). However, they have also been reported killing and predating small birds. On an episode of BBC Winterwatch (“1963: The Big Freeze”), a Water Rail was shown, in the middle of a severe winter, feeding on the remains of a Meadow Pipit. From recollection, it wasn’t clear whether the Rail had killed it or it was carrion. However, there are accounts of Water Rails killing small birds (e.g., Wrens) by stabbing them with their long red-orange and black bill or drowning them. For example, over two or three days, a Water Rail was observed chasing and attacking birds (Sparrows and Green Finches) at a ground-level garden feeding area in South Yorkshire. There was evidence of both killing and predation. It is relevant to note that, as with the WinterWatch observation, this was happening at a time of harsh winter weather, when snow was on the ground. Apparently, when the snow thawed, the Water Rail stopped attacking other birds and reverted to feeding on maize seeds that were on the ground. So, it might be that this predatory behaviour is more likely to occur when conditions are challenging and other sources of food are limited. However, Water Rails can show similar murderous intent when it comes to defending territory / feeding resources. This isn’t a bird to be messed with!