Best known by the nocturnal insect-like cadence of the males (tic-tic, tic-tic-tic), the Yellow Rail ranks as one of North America’s most elusive and mysterious birds. Although some people believe that it is more abundant than encounters would indicate, no data exist about its current population size, estimated by the Audubon Society at 17,500. The continued draining of wetlands across North America poses a threat to this secretive species and its breeding grounds. Indeed, what Audubon called a “pretty little bird” is considered as threatened or endangered in some states.
JJA first painted his model surrounded by reeds, still apparent as pentimenti, like ghosts in the sky. The exquisite sketch of a feather that he appended at the left margin appears at the upper right in the engraving. JJA inscribed the watercolor with the results of his dissection of an adult female: “Gizzard Large muscular, filled with shellfish minute & Gravel.―Bird very fat.―Eggs pure white. Ready to Lay on Dec.r 21. near New Orleans!” Dissection was a common practice for Audubon, who measured every anatomical part and organ of many of the birds and published these scientific findings in his Ornithological Biography, sometimes with woodcut illustrations by his Scottish friend and collaborator William MacGillivray.