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The Secret Lives of Black Rails, and the Scientists Who Seek Them
by William Widmer


On a late-winter night in southern Louisiana, a small group of scientists and college students drags paint cans full of BBs and bolts through a coastal marsh. With spotlights and fishing nets at the ready, they take high steps over tangles of grass, hoping the clattering will flush out their quarry—a red-eyed, sparrow-sized bird that few people have ever seen. Three hours into the march, as expectations fade and leg muscles start to quake, someone yells the two words the surveyors have been waiting to hear.

“Black rail!”

In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the eastern population of the black rail, a diminutive and elusive marsh bird, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing could come with special protections and federal resources to preserve habitat. But the bird’s breeding, nesting, and migration habits are largely a mystery—making effective stewardship difficult. So the Audubon Louisiana team pushes on—capturing, indexing, and releasing the tiny bird in the dead of night, in a valiant effort to save it.

This series illustrated a story written by Tristan Baurick that was published in Audubon Magazine in February 2019.