Donal C. O'Brien, Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Corolla

Research Shows Massive Black Rail Population Decline

Sanctuary Marsh Restoration Could Hold Key to Preserving Fragile Species

The Donal C. O'Brien, Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center is quickly becoming a premier destination for conservation research. Our Research and Education Campus offers a diverse mix of habitats where scientists observe wildlife, seek to understand environmental needs, and work to develop new management techniques furthering conservation.

The Sanctuary recently hosted The Center for Conservation Biology’s Research Biologist Michael Wilson and a team of scientists conducting surveys to measure the health of Black Rail populations and examine potential strongholds along North Carolina’s coast. Wilson’s team utilized the Sanctuary’s long-term low-cost housing and conducted monitoring projects on the Currituck Sound marsh complex.


Studies show over the past 20 years Black Rail populations have declined 90 percent in the Chesapeake Bay with a similar rate of decline recorded in NC. Black Rails are one of the most imperiled bird species on the Atlantic Coast. If significant conservation action isn’t taken, researchers believe we could lose this bird in our lifetime.

Over two years, Wilson’s team surveyed 262 locations across the state where the species has historically occurred to gather an accurate census of the current Black Rail population and determine how threatened the species has become. Wilson’s team first surveyed the western shoreline – Pamlico Sound to Wrightsville Beach, going on to cover the northeastern portion of NC in Year 2, which included monitoring and a long-term stay at the Sanctuary.

After two years of surveying the state – a known stronghold for the species – Wilson’s team only found Black Rails at five percent of locations. The census shines a light on startling declines to the state’s Black Rail population.

  • At Cedar Island, historically a place where 35 to 40 birds have been reported, only 8 birds were found.
  • At the Sanctuary in Corolla where prime-nesting habitat is supported, the team found zero Black Rails.

These findings show the Black Rail population is at a critical tipping point. Habitat management is a key piece to supporting future Black Rail populations.


Now that there’s sufficient data to support the need for Black Rail preservation efforts, Wilson hopes special attention will be focused on the places they need to survive. Dry marsh complexes are at the top of the list for preservation as these are key nesting sites for rails in NC.

Because rails nest on the ground in high, dry areas, the marsh-reliant species faces extreme threats from sea level rise, as well as severe storms and flooding. Dry marsh complexes are at risk of declining and disappearing as sea level rises, but this specialized habitat is preserved at the Sanctuary in Corolla.

As preservation of Black Rails becomes increasingly critical, the Sanctuary will be a key location for the research and conservation efforts. Audubon’s staff actively maintains the necessary habitat for rails and continues to explore the best management methods to preserve marsh complexes long-term as the coast continues to face the challenges of human development, sea level rise and other environmental factors.


The Black Rails are only one example of a bird suffering from a loss of habitat. These high marsh habitats only exist in a small ribbon of land across the Coastal US. It’s increasingly important to support the birds that need it for long-term survival.

The data collected by the survey is the first of its kind for the conservation community. Wilson’s findings provide researchers with a special profile of the necessary steps needed to preserve a specialized habitat and save a species on the brink.

The Sanctuary supports ongoing conservation projects by offering housing as well as a living laboratory to conduct research and monitoring. To learn more about the research and education opportunities available at the Sanctuary visit our website here.

The Wildlife Resources Commission funded the project lead by The Center for Conservation Biology’s Research Biologist Michael Wilson.

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