Light-footed Clapper Rails emerging from aerated transportation boxes after a short drive from the breeding center to coastal salt marshes at San Elijo Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Chris Mayne

Hand-raised clapper rails released into the wild

CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — It was a good day for endangered light-footed clapper rails as seven hand-raised birds were released into the 915-acre San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy recently. On release day the conservancy trail was lined with scientists, conservationists and spectators. Upon a three count, honored guests opened the bird boxes and the clapper rails flew off and shortly dropped down in the lagoon that will be their home.

“At the count of three they opened the boxes and they flew in all different directions,” Doug Gibson, executive director and principal scientist of San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, said. “One kept flying and everyone shouted ‘drop, drop.’”

A clapper rail is a brown 8- to 9-inch salt marsh bird with a rust colored chest and pointed beak. It is a resident bird that is shy by nature and walks more than it flies.

The released birds will likely live their lives at the lagoon.

Clapper rails can be found nesting in tall marsh grass and running on the sand. It might be difficult for viewers to get a look at the bird because of its private nature.

The Light-footed Clapper Rails receive bands with an endangered species ID before re-introduction to the wild at San Elijo Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Chris Mayne

“They’re a secretive bird,” Gibson said. “You’re really lucky if you ever get a chance to see one.”

Although they are seldom seen, their distinct clapping-sounding call is often heard.

“You don’t always see them, but you definitely hear them,” Gibson said.

To hear the clapper rail sound, visit

Clapper rails have been on the endangered species list since 1973.

“When an indicator species declines you know you have something wrong that has to be addressed,” Gibson said.

Thanks to capture breeding programs the number of clapper rails continues to increase. Along the California Coast numbers have increased from 163 to about 500 breeding pairs.

There are 31 breeding pairs in the San Elijo Lagoon.

A growing number of this indicator species means the whole lagoon is getting healthier.

The mission is taken on as a full systems habitat recovery project.

“We’re not just raising birds and throwing them out there, we’re restoring habitat they need,” Gibson said.

The conservancy continually works on habitat restoration to improve the lagoon’s water circulation and put in native plants that animals depend on for food and nesting.

It partners with the Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista and San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, which have capture breeding programs to repopulate the lagoon with clapper rails.

These scientists hatch and raise clapper rail chicks in enclosed habitats that mimic their natural environment. A hands-off approach is used so the birds do not develop attachment with humans and become independent.

Hand-raised clapper rails must reach a high level of independence before they are released into the wild.

“There is a checklist of behaviors the birds have to exhibit to pass and be released, like hunting and hiding,” Gibson said. “It’s a shock for these birds to be let out in the open into the wild blue yonder.”

Bird monitoring is done to gauge how well the clapper rails are functioning. Environmental trends are also watched.

The county-operated nature center is at 2710 Manchester Drive. San Elijo Lagoon trails are open sunrise to sunset.