Water Rail

Rallus aquaticus (Linnaeus, 1758) WA WATRA 4070
Family: Gruiformes > Rallidae

Water Rail, Sarah Kelman

A member of the crake family, the Water Rail, with its long red bill and black-and-white striped sides, favour the lush dense vegetation associated with waterbodies and wet ground.

This is a species that is more often heard than seen, and this is one reason why this is such a difficult bird to census. It is thought that around 4,000 pairs breed in the UK.

During the winter the most common call is a ‘pig-like’ squeal and Water Rail squealing are often referred to as ‘sharming’. The species can be adversely affected during periods of prolonged freezing conditions, and individuals will move elsewhere in search of warmer conditions. Birds from Europe bolster numbers during the winter and the BirdTrack reporting rate graph shows records peaking at this time.


Water Rail identification is often straightforward.


Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Water Rail, provided by xeno-canto contributors.


Flight call



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Status and Trends

Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.


This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.



The Water Rail is a secretive species and hence difficult to monitor robustly. Atlas data show a small (6%) increase in the number of occupied 10-km squares in Britain since 1968–72, but it is uncertain whether this reflects a real change or differences in observer coverage (Balmer et al. 2013). The UK population has recently been estimated at 3,900+ pairs taking into account county estimates and dedicated site surveys (Francis et al. 2020). The species had been added to the list of species considered by the Rare Breeding Birds Panel in 2006 but it was dropped in 2018 as a result of this revised UK population estimate. The population is most likely to be stable or increasing, but this is uncertain due to the unreliability of monitoring.


Breeding Water Rails are patchily distributed throughout the lowlands of Britain and Ireland. In winter they are twice as widespread in Britain perhaps because resident breeders are supplemented by migrants from continental Europe.

Occupied 10-km squares in UK

European Distribution Map

European Breeding Bird Atlas 2


Changes in range are difficult to interpret for this difficult to detect species.

Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK


Water Rails are present throughout the year, sometimes heard in the breeding season but more often seen in winter months.

Weekly occurence of Water Rail from BirdTrack
Weekly occurrence patterns (shaded cells) and reporting rates (vertical bars) based on BirdTrack data. Reporting rates give the likelihood of encountering the species each week.


Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.


View a summary of recoveries in the Online Ringing Report.

Foreign locations of birds ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland

Foreign locations of Water Rail ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland
Encountered in: Winter (Nov-Feb); Spring (Mar-Apr); Summer (May-Jul); Autumn (Aug-Oct)


Lifecycle and body size information about Water Rail, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.



View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report


Feather measurements and photos on featherbase


For information in another language (where available) click on a linked name

Gaelic: Gearradh-dubh-nan-allt
Welsh: Rhegen Dwr
Catalan: rascló occidental
Czech: chrástal vodní
Danish: Vandrikse
Dutch: Waterral
Estonian: rooruik
Finnish: luhtakana
French: Râle d’eau
German: Wasserralle
Hungarian: guvat
Icelandic: Keldusvín
Irish: Ralóg Uisce
Italian: Porciglione
Latvian: dumbracalis
Lithuanian: ilgasnape vištele
Norwegian: Vannrikse
Polish: wodnik (zwyczajny)
Portuguese: frango-d'água
Slovak: chriaštel vodný
Slovenian: mokož
Spanish: Rascón europeo
Swedish: vattenrall
Folkname: Velvet Runner, Skittycock, Sharmer


Interpretation and scientific publications about Water Rail from BTO scientists.


Causes of change

Given the difficulty in monitoring this species it is unclear whether there have been any changes in population, although it is likely that the population is stable or increasing (Francis et al. 2020). The small increase in range since 1968–72 could perhaps have been prompted by relatively mild winters during the 1990s and 2000s but it is unclear whether the increase is genuine and it may result simply from improved observer coverage (Balmer et al. 2013). Habitat restoration and creation for other reedbed specialists such as the Bittern may also have benefited the Water Rail.

Links to more information from ConservationEvidence.com

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