Lord Howe wood Rail

Description and biology

The Lord Howe wood rail, also called the Lord Howe wood hen, is a flightless marsh bird that averages 14 inches (36 centimeters) in length. The color of its plumage (covering of feathers) is brown.

Dark brown and black stripes mark its wings. The bird has a strong, curved bill and red eyes. As it ages, the feathers around its neck and on the sides of its head turn gray.

The wood rail feeds on worms, grubs, and insects. Its home territory averages 7.5 acres (3 hectares) in size. Owls and feral (once domesticated, now wild) pigs are its main predators.

Lord Howe wood rails mate for life, and a male–female pair often remain apart from other wood rails. They breed primarily in late spring and summer. After building a nest on the ground, a female wood rail lays a clutch (eggs produced at one time) of 1 to 4 eggs. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate that it takes 19 to 20 days for the eggs to hatch. Upon hatching, the chicks are black in color.

Habitat and current distribution

The Lord Howe wood rail is found on the island from which it takes its name, Lord Howe Island, a volcanic island lying about 300 miles east off the coast of the southeastern Australian state of New South Wales.

The bird inhabits both lowland palm forests and higher elevation mountain forests. In a 1990 survey, biologists estimated that the wood rail’s population was between 170 and 200. Its population is believed to have stabilized in the early 2000s.

History and conservation measures

When English explorers first set foot on Lord Howe Island in 1788, the Lord Howe wood rail was found throughout the island. Not long after, English whaling ships began stopping at the island.

Since the flightless wood rail could be easily captured, it became an abundant food source for sailors. By the 1850s, the English had established permanent settlements on the island.

In time, some of the goats and pigs the English had brought with them to the island escaped from farms and became feral. They quickly killed off many of the remaining wood rails. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the birds existed in low numbers only on the island’s mountaintops.

By the mid–1970s, biologists believed the Lord Howe wood rail population numbered fewer than 30 birds. Conservationists (people protecting the natural world) then began taking steps to eliminate introduced predators such as the wild pig.

In 1980, a captive–breeding program was initiated using three of the remaining wood rail pairs. The birds reproduced rapidly, and over the next four years, 85 birds bred in captivity were released into the wild. By 1990, the wild wood rail population had increased to about 50 breeding pairs and almost 200 total birds.

Even with the success of captive breeding, feral pigs, cats, and dogs remain a threat to the wood rail. Another major threat is the masked owl, introduced to the island in the 1920s to contain the rat population. Current conservation efforts to save the Lord Howe wood rail are focused on controlling all these predators.