The rails are a large family of some 130 species, and are amongst the most widespread of birds being found almost everywhere, including most small island groups, apart from Antarctica. Representatives are found in all habitats below the snowline, apart from deserts. Their love of dense vegetation and generally secretive nature means that some are amongst the least known of bird species. They can be divided in three loose groupings, the long-billed rails, the short-billed crakes and gallinules and the aquatic coots.
The rails typically have short, thin bodies, ideal for running through the dense vegetation in which they can hide very effectively with their cryptic plumage. They have medium sized down-curved bills, which they use for probing in mud, though they will take a wide range of prey, including fish, bird's eggs and carrion. Most have long toes, for spreading weight over the mud, and powerful legs for running, but which can be used in fights against rival birds when required. The Water Rail is the only British representative of this group.
The crakes and gallinules have much shorter bills, they forage more on the mud or water surface looking for insects or floating seeds and most will also browse on plants. The crakes are as cryptically coloured as as the rails, but the gallinules are much more colourful, often being dressed in shades of blue or green. Most species are thought to be monogamous, though in the Moorhen, a common bird of small ponds, young from previous years will remain to help their parents raise further broods.
Although most members of this family are at home in water to some extent, only the coots are truly aquatic. Their long toes are enlarged with sizable lobes to help them swimming and they are rarely found far from water. The familiar British Coot is typical of most species, being black, with a striking white frontal shield. The coot even nests in the water, building a floating platform on which the eggs are laid.