RAIL. (1) (From Fr. Râle, cf. Ger. Ralle, Low Lat. Rallus, of unknown origin), originally the English name of two birds, distinguished from one another by a prefix as land-rail and water-rail, but latterly applied in a much wider sense to all the species which are included in the family Rallidae.
The land-rail, also very commonly known as the corncrake, and sometimes as the daker-hen, is the Rallus crex of Linnaeus and Crex pratensis of recent authors. Its monotonous grating cry has given it its common name in several languages. With comparatively few individual exceptions, the land-rail is essentially migratory. It is the Ortygometra of classical authors—supposed by them to lead the quail (q.v.) on its voyages—and in the course of its wanderings has now been known to reach the coast of Greenland, and several times that of North America, to say nothing of Bermuda, in every instance we may believe as a straggler from Europe or Barbary. The land-rail looks about as big as a partridge, but on examination its appearance is found to be very deceptive, and it will hardly ever weigh more than half as much. The plumage above is of a tawny brown, the feathers being longitudinally streaked with blackish brown; beneath it is of a yellowish white; but the flanks are of a light chestnut barred with white. The species is very locally distributed, and in a way for which there is at present no accounting. In some dry upland and corn-growing districts it is plentiful; in others, of apparently the same character, it but rarely occurs; and the same may be said in regard to low-lying marshy meadows, in most of which it is in season always to be heard, while in others having a close resemblance to them it is never met with. The nest is on the ground, generally in long grass, and therein from nine to eleven eggs are commonly laid. These are of a cream colour, spotted and blotched with light red and grey. The young when hatched are thickly clothed with black down, as is the case in nearly all species of the family.
The water-rail, locally known as the skiddy or billcock, is the Rallus aquaticus of ornithology, and seems to be less abundant than the preceding, though that is in some measure due to its frequenting places into which from their swampy nature men do not often intrude. Having a general resemblance to the land-rail, it can be in a moment distinguished by its partly red and much longer bill, and the darker coloration of its plumage—the upper parts being of an olive brown with black streaks, the breast and belly of a sooty grey, and the flanks dull black barred with white. Its geographical distribution is very wide, extending from Iceland (where it is said to preserve its existence during winter by resorting to the hot springs) to China; and though it inhabits Northern India, Lower Egypt and Barbary, it seems not to pass beyond the tropical line. It never affects upland districts as does the land-rail, but always haunts wet marshes or the close vicinity of water. Its love-note is a loud and harsh cry, not continually repeated as is that of the land-rail, but uttered at considerable intervals and so suddenly as to have been termed “explosive." Besides this, which is peculiar to the cock-bird, it has a croaking call that is frog-like. The eggs resemble those of the preceding, but are more brightly and delicately tinted.
The various species of rails, whether allied to the former or latter of those just mentioned, are far too numerous to be here noticed. Hardly any part of the world is without a representative of the genera Crex or Rallus, and every considerable country has one or perhaps more of each—though it has been the habit of systematists to refer them to many other genera, the characters of which are with difficulty found. Thus in Europe alone three other species allied to Crex pratensis occur more or less abundantly; but one of them, the spotted rail or crake, has been made the type of a so-called genus Porzana, and the other two, little birds not much bigger than larks, are considered to form a genus Zapornia. The first of these, which used not to be uncommon in the eastern part of England, has a very near representative in the Carolina rail or sora, Crex carolina, of North America, often there miscalled the ortolan, just as its European analogue, C. porzana, is in England often termed the dotterel. But, passing over these as well as some belonging to genera that can be much better defined, and other still more interesting forms of the family, as Aphanapteryx, coot (q.v.), moor-hen (q.v.) and ocydrome (q.v.), a few words must be said of the more distant group formed by the South American Heliornis, and the African and Indian Podica, comprising four or five species, to which the name “Finfoots” has been applied—from the lobes or flaps of skin that fringe their toes. Though for a long while placed among the Podicipedidae (see Grebe), their osteology no less than their habits appear to indicate their alliance with the rails, and they are placed as a separate family, Heliornithidae of the order Gruiformes, to which the rails belong; but they seem to show the extreme modification of that type in adaptation to aquatic life. The curious genus Mesites of Madagascar, whose systematic place has been so long in doubt, has been referred by A. Milne-Edwards (Ann. Sc. Naturelle, ser. 6, vii. art. 2) to the neighbourhood of the rails, but is now associated as a sub-order Mesitae with Galliform birds. On the other hand the jacanas or Parridae, which from their long toes were once thought to belong to the rails, are now generally admitted to be Limicoline, while the genus Aramus—the courlan or limpkin of the southern United States—still occupies a very undetermined position. (A. N.)
(2) (Through O.Fr. reille, from Lat. regula, a rule; the Du. and Swed. regel, Ger. Riegel, bolt or bar, are probably also from the Latin), a horizontal bar of wood, metal or other material resting on, or fixed in, upright posts to form a fence, or as a support for hanging things on, to form the “hand-rail” of a stair, &c.; on a ship the upper part of the bulwarks, e.g. the “taffrail,” round the stern bulwarks; especially, one of the pair of iron or steel bars on which a train or tram runs (see Railways).
There are two other words “rail”: (a) an obsolete word (O.E. hrægel), for a garment; often in the compound “night-rail”; and (b) a verb, to abuse, use angry language, from Fr. railler, possibly from the same root as Lat. radere, to scrape. The word is also seen in “rally,” to banter, tease (distinguish, however, “rally,” to bring together, especially of defeated troops (from Fr. rallier; re, again, and allier, ally, Lat. alligare)).
- Formerly it seems to have been a popular belief in England that the land-rail in autumn transformed itself into a water-rail, resuming its own characters in spring.