Show Me the Rails

In August the Research Frontiers blog highlighted Auriel Fournier’s summer field research in Saskatchewan, Canada, where she banded and measured captured rails as part of a project to better understand how the elusive wetland birds migrate.

This fall, Auriel, a doctoral candidate with the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in the Department of Biological Sciences, has turned her attention to her ongoing fieldwork in Missouri.

Auriel and her technicians head out at night on all-terrain vehicles in wetlands across the Show Me State, to document the response of rails to different management decisions. This is her fourth fall field season in Missouri.

Auriel Fournier with a captured rail in Missouri. | Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit/Auriel Fournier

Auriel Fournier with a captured rail in Missouri. | Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit/Auriel Fournier

Rails are members of a group of birds called “secretive marsh birds” and are some of the least studied birds in North America. They spend most of their lives in dense vegetation where they are rarely seen. Although they are hunted in low numbers, rails are a game bird in many states. They migrate yearly from the northern United States and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and farther south. Limited work has been done on their migration.

In collaboration with the Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Auriel is comparing the responses of both rails and waterfowl to early August flooding and late September flooding.

“I’ve found that rails migrate earlier then other waterfowl,” she said. “During this time they encounter a largely dry wetland landscape – which may limit their available habitat. My study will provide information on wetland management for managers and agencies across the mid-latitude states.”

The Missouri Department of Conservation recently awarded $64,000 to the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to continue the project through fall 2016. It started in 2012 through funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Webless Migratory Gamebird Program to study the fall migration ecology of rails.

Every rail is assigned a band number on an orange envelope in which the bird's feathers are placed. | Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit/Auriel Fournier

Every rail is assigned a band number on an orange envelope in which the bird’s feathers are placed. | Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit/Auriel Fournier

In addition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Missouri Department of Conservation, the Garden Club of America and the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are also funding Auriel’s project. She is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the U of A.

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