We measured the vocal responses and movements of radio-tagged black rails (Laterallus jamaicensis) (n = 43, 26 males, 17 females) to playback of vocalizations at 2 sites in Florida during the breeding seasons of 1992-95. We used regression coefficients from logistic regression equations to model the probability of a response conditional to the birds' sex, nesting status, distance to playback source, and the time of survey. With a probability of 0.811, non-nesting male black rails were most likely to respond to playback, while nesting females were the least likely to respond (probability = 0.189). Linear regression was used to determine daily, monthly, and annual variation in response from weekly playback surveys along a fixed route during the breeding seasons of 1993-95. Significant sources of variation in the linear regression model were month (F = 3.89, df = 3, p = 0.0140), year (F = 9.37, df = 2, p = 0.0003), temperature (F = 5.44, df=1, p = 0.0236), and month*year (F = 2.69, df = 5, p = 0.0311). The model was highly significant (p < 0.0001) and explained 53% of the variation of mean response per survey period (R2 = 0.5353). Response probability data obtained from the radio-tagged black rails and data from the weekly playback survey route were combined to provide a density estimate of 0.25 birds/ha for the St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge. Density estimates for black rails may be obtained from playback surveys, and fixed radius circular plots. Circular plots should be considered as having a radius of 80 m and be located so the plot centers are 150 m apart. Playback tapes should contain one series of Kic-kic-kerr and Growl vocalizations recorded within the same geographic region as the study area. Surveys should be conducted from 0-2 hours after sunrise or 0-2 hours before sunset, during the pre-nesting season, and when wind velocity is < 20 kph. Observers should listen for 3-4 minutes after playing the survey tape and record responses heard during that time. Observers should be trained to identify black rail vocalizations and should have acceptable hearing ability. Given the number of variables that may have large effects on the response behavior of black rails to tape playback, we recommend that future studies using playback surveys should be cautious when presenting estimates of 'absolute' density. Though results did account for variation in response behavior, we believe that additional variation in vocal response between sites, with breeding status, and bird density remains in question. Playback surveys along fixed routes providing a simple index of abundance would be useful to monitor populations over large geographic areas, and over time. Considering the limitations of most agency resources for webless waterbirds, index surveys may be more appropriate. Future telemetry studies of this type on other species and at other sites would be useful to calibrate information obtained from playback surveys whether reporting an index of abundance or density estimate.
Additional publication details
Vocalization behavior and response of black rails
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey