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Uncovering the Mystery of Dieffenbach’s Rail: Identification Behavior and Conservation

Have you ever heard about Dieffenbach’s Rail, or Gallirallus dieffenbachii? This elusive bird species wasn’t discovered until the 19th century and is still a mystery to many bird watchers.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the identification, plumages, and molts of this bird species, giving you a clearer understanding of the bird’s behavior, habitat, and lifestyle.


Field Identification

Dieffenbach’s Rail is a small, flightless bird that is endemic to New Zealand’s main islands. Resembling a chicken, this bird is about 25 centimeters long and has a brown back and black head and neck.

It has a long, curved bill and red-orange legs, which are distinctive features, making it easy to identify.

Similar Species

Although Dieffenbach’s Rail is easily identifiable by its bright-colored legs, one might mistake it for other rail species in New Zealand, such as the North Island Rail or the Baillon’s Crake, which have similar coloration. However, the Dieffenbach’s Rail is visibly larger than both the North Island Rail and Baillon’s Crake.


Dieffenbach’s Rail has three plumage forms – Juvenile, Adult, and Intermediate. The Juvenile plumage is the bird’s temporary coat, which it acquires after hatching.

It’s characterized by a head and neck entirely black, and lower back and tail coverts having buffy-white stripes. After a year, the bird molts to its intermediate plumage, which is a mix of brown and black.

The adult plumage is attained after two years, where the bird’s body is entirely brown, and the head and neck being black.


After the Juvenile plumage, Dieffenbach’s Rail undergoes two molts in its lifetime to attain its adult plumage. The bird’s intermediate plumage is acquired after the first molt, which occurs a year after hatching.

During the second molt, which happens after the intermediate plumage, the bird achieves the adult plumage.


Dieffenbach’s Rail is a unique bird species; a bird lover’s dream. Understanding the bird’s identification, plumages, and molts provides a more in-depth understanding of the bird’s life cycle and is instrumental in understanding the bird migration pattern.

Knowing the bird’s behavior, habitat, and lifestyle ultimately makes it easier to spot and identify them while on bird watching excursions.

Systematics History

The Dieffenbach’s Rail, Gallirallus dieffenbachii, is a bird species that belongs to the family Rallidae, a group of flightless birds found mainly in wetlands. The bird was initially discovered by Ernst Dieffenbach, a German naturalist, during the 1830s while he was conducting research in New Zealand.

Geographic Variation

The Dieffenbach’s Rail has a unique distribution pattern, with the bird found exclusively in New Zealand’s North and South Islands. The bird’s distribution pattern has substantially influenced the naming of its subspecies.


Currently, there are three subspecies of the Dieffenbach’s Rail, all of which are found in New Zealand. The subspecies are:

– Gallirallus dieffenbachii dieffenbachii found in the North Island;

– Gallirallus dieffenbachii scotti found in northern South Island;

– Gallirallus dieffenbachii greenwayi found in southern South Island.

These subspecies differ concerning their physical and genetic characteristics, with the southern South Island subspecies having a darker pigmentation than the other subspecies found in the North and northern South Islands.

Related Species

Dieffenbach’s Rail is closely related to other rail species such as the New Zealand Marsh Crake, which is also endemic to New Zealand. The two birds share a similar habitat and physical characteristics, including bright-colored legs.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Dieffenbach’s Rail, like many other bird species, has faced numerous challenges regarding its distribution. The bird’s population has significantly declined due to habitat destruction, mostly wetland drainage for agricultural purposes.

Increased predation by introduced mammals such as rats, cats, and stoats has also contributed to the decline in the bird’s population. During the 20th century, the New Zealand government initiated several conservation efforts aimed at protecting the Dieffenbach’s Rail, including habitat preservation, predator control programs, and translocation of birds to predator-free offshore islands.

These efforts have been successful in increasing the bird’s population, and the New Zealand Department of

Conservation now classifies the species as ‘At Risk: Declining.’


The Dieffenbach’s Rail is a bird species that is endemic to New Zealand’s North and South Islands, with three distinct subspecies. Despite facing various challenges to its distribution, the bird’s population has increased thanks to increased conservation efforts.

Understanding the systematics history, geographic variation, subspecies, and related species of the Dieffenbach’s Rail provides a comprehensive understanding of the bird, its habitat, and behavior, and can help in developing better conservation efforts for its long-term survival.


Dieffenbach’s Rail is found mainly in wetland habitats, such as swamps, marshes, and riparian areas, providing cover and food sources in the form of seeds, insects, small invertebrates, and freshwater mollusks. The bird’s distribution in New Zealand is limited to these habitats, and its proximity to water dictates the bird’s behavior and survival rate.

They prefer lowland habitat, but they can survive in upland habitat as well.

Movements and Migration

Dieffenbach’s Rail is a flightless bird species, so it moves entirely on foot. The bird is more active at dawn and dusk, leaving its cover to forage for food or search for mates.

As a result, they are mostly found on the ground and rarely seen in flight. Dieffenbach’s Rail have relatively small territories that overlap, and in their preferred habitats, their movements tend to be limited, with most of their activity taking place in small patches of vegetation.

Dieffenbach’s Rail is not a migratory bird, so their movements are restricted to a relatively small area throughout the year. However, they do show some dispersion patterns when their populations increase, leading to movements into nearby territories in search of new habitats and food sources.


Dieffenbach’s Rail breeding behaviors vary depending on their location. In the Northern parts of the islands, the breeding season starts in August and lasts until January.

In the Southern region, the breeding season begins in September and ends in February. During the breeding season, the male Dieffenbach’s Rail becomes more active and vocal, using a range of vocalizations to attract females and establish territories.

The nest is usually shallowly excavated into the ground or among roots of vegetation and made of dried grass or sedges. The female usually lays 4-5 white eggs that take approximately a month to hatch.


The Dieffenbach’s Rail population is challenged by introduced mammalian predators such as stoats, ferrets, and rats, which prey on the bird’s eggs, nests, and the birds themselves. It is speculated that predators were responsible for the near-extinction of the South Island subspecies.

In response to the threat of predation, the New Zealand Department of

Conservation has implemented several programs aimed at controlling the predators, including trapping and poisoning.


Dieffenbach’s Rail, like many other endemic bird species in New Zealand, are threatened with extinction. They are included in several national conservation programs and are protected under New Zealand’s conservation legislation.

The populations have been dwindling mainly because of negative impacts, such as habitat destruction and predation, over time. Several strategies have been implemented to counter these threats, including wetland restoration, predator control, and captive breeding and relocation programs.

These efforts have resulted in increased population trends, which is good news for the future of the species.


Dieffenbach’s Rail is a unique bird species with a limited distribution in New Zealand. They thrive in wetland habitats and are mainly active during the early morning and late evenings.

Breeding behaviors vary depending on location, and the birds are threatened mostly by predation by introduced mammalian species. Successful conservation efforts involve wetland restoration, predator control, and breeding programs.

These strategies are necessary for the long-term survival of the species.

Diet and Foraging


Dieffenbach’s Rail is primarily a herbivorous bird species that feeds mainly on seeds, small invertebrates, and freshwater mollusks. The bird is known to forage on the ground, pecking at the ground and vegetation for food.

Their sharp bills are also used to extract snails from the mud, and the species has been known to hunt insects if conditions are unfavorable for their primary food sources.


Their diet profile changes based on the season, with seeds and freshwater mollusks making up the most significant part of their diet in the winter. During the summer months, they tend to consume more insects and other small invertebrates.

Studies have also shown that Dieffenbach’s Rail has adapted to forage on introduced species, including white clover, which they have learned to recognize as a food source.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Dieffenbach’s Rail is a relatively small bird with an active metabolic rate, requiring a constant supply of food to maintain body temperature. They are also endothermic, having the ability to regulate their body temperature, which they do primarily through their foraging behaviors.

Wetland environments, which are the bird’s main habitat, maintain a relatively constant temperature, providing temperature regulation to the bird.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Dieffenbach’s Rail is known for its nocturnal vocalization, using a range of sounds and calls to attract mates and establish territories. Their calls are often heard during dusk and dawn and can carry over a distance of around 100 meters.

Vocalizations are also used to communicate with their young and other members of the species. The calls can vary depending on the context, with the bird being able to produce different calls to signify different conditions or messages.

The Dieffenbach’s Rail’s vocalizations are generally characterized by short calls or muffled squawks, which are not particularly melodic. The birds have also been known to emit a low-frequency grunt-like sound when threatened or alarmed, providing them an early warning of danger.

In conclusion, Dieffenbach’s Rail is a unique bird species exhibiting a herbivorous diet with an active metabolic rate and endothermic capabilities, allowing normal body temperature regulation. Their vocalizations are an integral part of their reproductive and communication behaviors and mainly take place during dusk and dawn.

Further studies that advance our understanding of these behaviors will be instrumental in preserving the species and its habitat.



Dieffenbach’s Rail is a flightless bird species that depends on its legs and wings for balance and movement. The bird is a fairly good runner, with long, powerful legs that enable it to cover short distances quickly.

They also have small, wide wings that assist in balance and provide propulsion when jumping or running over obstacles.


Dieffenbach’s Rail is known for their meticulous self-maintenance behavior, with the birds using their bills and talons to clean their feathers and remove any debris or parasites. They also perform preening behaviors and are known to take dust baths to maintain their plumes.

The birds have limited oil glands and therefore rely on dust and sun to help remove excess oil and debris. They are also known to perform body shaking movements to remove excess water and maintain their feathers.

Agonistic Behavior

Dieffenbach’s Rail is known for its aggressive and territorial behavior, primarily exhibited during the breeding season when females are selecting a mate and males are competing for territory. The bird’s behavior can be triggered by the presence of other birds or even people, which they perceive as a potential threat, leading to aggressive behavior, including charging, lunging, and wing flapping.

Sexual Behavior

Males initiate sexual behavior, performing courtship displays to attract females, including headbobbing, fanning of the tail feathers, and bill dipping. The birds use a range of vocalizations to communicate with their mates, and breeding pairs tend to stay together during the breeding season.

Mating takes place between August and February, with the females laying 4-5 eggs that take a month to hatch.


Dieffenbach’s Rail is known for its monogamous breeding behavior, with females laying eggs once a year between August and February. Nests are shallowly excavated and made from dried grass or sedges, providing cover and protection, and are situated within a suitable habitat near fresh water sources.

The female bird usually lays 4-5 eggs that take approximately a month to hatch. The male and female birds take turns caring for the young until they fledge, which is approximately three weeks after hatching.

Demography and Populations

Dieffenbach’s Rail populations have been threatened over time, primarily due to habitat loss and predation by introduced mammalian species, including stoats, ferrets, and rats. However, their populations have been increasing due to conservation efforts, including habitat preservation, predator control programs, and captive breeding and translocation of birds to predator-free offshore islands.

Population estimates are tricky to make, given the bird’s elusive nature as well as its local distribution and behavior. However, recent studies suggest that Dieffenbach’s Rail populations are evenly distributed across their geographical ranges, from the North Island to the South Island.

Additionally, some subpopulations have been found to differ genetically, hinting at the potential for further speciation or divergence in the future. The Dieffenbach’s Rail is a unique bird species endemic to New Zealand’s North and South Islands.

Despite facing numerous threats to its distribution, such as habitat destruction and predation, successful conservation efforts have resulted in the bird’s population increasing. Understanding the bird’s behavior, habitat, and lifestyle plays a vital role in this conservation effort.

This article has highlighted the various aspects of the Dieffenbach’s Rail’s life cycle, from its diet and foraging habits to its locomotion, breeding behavior, and population demographics. The bird’s overall significance cannot be overstated; its preservation is essential not only for the bird but also for the ecological balance of its habitat.

Continued conservation efforts remain necessary to secure the bird’s long-term survival and to preserve nature’s unique beauty.

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