The African crake (Crex egregia) is The African crake is a smallish crake, 20-23 cm (7.8-9.1 in) long with a 40-42 cm (15.7-16.5 in) wingspan. The male has blackish upperparts streaked with olive-brown, apart from the nape and hindneck which are plain pale brown; there is a white streak from the base of the bill to above the eye. The sides of the head, foreneck, throat and breast are bluish-grey, the flight feathers are dark brown, and the flanks and sides of the belly are barred black and white. The eye is red, the bill is reddish, and the legs and feet are light brown or grey. The sexes are similar in appearance, although the female is slightly smaller and duller than the male, with a less contrasting head pattern. Immature birds have darker and duller upperparts than the adult, a dark bill, grey eye, and less barring on the underparts. There are no subspecific or other geographical variations in plumage. This crake has a complete moult after breeding, mainly prior to migration. Although this species occurs in fairly open habitats, it lacks the pure white undertail used for signalling in open water or gregarious species like the coots and moorhens. The African crake is larger than the corn crake, which also has darker upperparts, a plain grey face and different underparts barring pattern. In flight, the African species has shorter, blunter wings with a less prominent white leading edge, and deeper wingbeats than its relative. Other sympatric crakes are smaller with white markings on the upperparts, different underparts patterns and a shorter bill. The African rail has dark brown upperparts, a long red bill and red legs and feet. The African crake is active during the day, especially at dusk, during light rain, or after heavier rain. It is less skulking and easier to flush from cover than other crakes, and is often seen at the edges of roads and tracks. An observer in a vehicle can approach to within 1 m (3 ft). When a bird is flushed it normally flies less than 50 m (150 ft), but new arrivals may occasionally fly twice as far. A flushed crake will frequently land in a wet area or behind a thicket, and crouch on landing. In short grass, it can escape from a dog using its speed and maneuverability, running with the body held almost horizontal. It may roost in a depression near grass tussock and it will bathe in puddles.
Habitat and Distribution
The African crake occurs throughout sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal east to Kenya and south to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, except in arid areas of south and southwest Africa where the annual summer rainfall is less than 300 mm (11.8 in). It is widespread and locally common in most of its range, apart from the rainforests and the drier regions. The habitat is predominantly grassland, ranging from wetland edges and seasonal floodlands to savanna, lightly wooded dry grassland, and grassy forest clearings. The crake also frequents maize, rice and cotton crops, derelict farmland and sugarcane plantations close to water. A wide range of grass species are used, with a preferred height of 0.3-1 m (1- 3 ft) tall but vegetation is acceptable up to 2 m (6 ft) tall. It normally prefers moister and shorter grassland habitats than does the corn crake, and its breeding territories often contain or are close to thickets or termite mounds. It occurs from sea level to 2,000 m (6,500 ft) but is rare in the higher altitude grasslands. Its grassland habitat is frequently burned in the dry season, forcing the birds to move elsewhere. The highest densities occur in lush or moist grassland such as the Okavango Delta.
The African crake feeds on invertebrates including earthworms, gastropods, molluscs and the adults and larvae of insects, especially termites, ants, beetles and grasshoppers. Vertebrate prey such as small frogs or fish may also be taken. Plant material is eaten, especially grass seeds, but also green shoots, leaves and other seeds. The crake searches for food both within vegetation and in the open, picking insects and seeds from the ground, turning over leaf litter, or digging with its bill in soft or very dry ground. It will chase faster moving prey, reach up to take food from plants, and wade to pluck food items from the water. Crop plants such as rice, maize and peas may sometimes be eaten, but this bird is not an agricultural pest species. It forages singly, in pairs or in family groups, sometimes in association with other grassland birds such as great snipes, blue quails and corn crakes. Chicks are fed mainly on animal food. As with other rails, grit is swallowed to help break up food in the stomach.
Breeding behavior commences with a courtship chase with the female running in a crouch, pursued by the male, who adopts a more upright stance and has his neck outstretched. The female may stop and lower her head and tail to allow copulation; this takes just a few seconds, but may be repeated several times in an hour. The nest is a shallow cup of grass leaves, sometimes with a loose canopy, built in a depression and hidden under a grass tussock or small bush; it may be on dry ground or slightly raised above standing water, or occasionally floating. The nest is about 20 cm (8 in) across with the internal cup 2-5 cm (1-2 in) deep, and 11-12 cm (5-6 in) wide. The clutch size is from 3 to 11 pink-coloured eggs; the first is often laid when the nest is little more than a pad of grass, and a further egg is laid on each subsequent day. Both sexes incubate, and the eggs start hatching after about 14 days; all hatch with 48 hours despite the extended laying period. The black, downy precocial chicks soon leave the nest but are fed and protected by the parents. Fledging occurs after four to five weeks, and the young can fly before they are fully grown. It is not known whether a second brood is raised.
Calls and Songs
Like other rails, this species has a wide range of vocalisations. The male's territorial and advertising call is a series of rapid grating krrr notes repeated two or three times a second for several minutes. It is given most often in the breeding season, usually early or late in the day, but sometimes continues after dark or starts before dawn. The male stands upright with his neck extended when advertising, but will also call when chasing intruders on the ground or in flight. Both sexes give a sharp, loud kip call as an alarm or during territorial interactions, adapting a similar pose as for the advertising call. Once breeding starts, the birds become much quieter, but territorial birds commence the kip call again during the non-breeding season, especially when there is a high density of African crakes in the area. A wheezy kraaa is associated with threat displays and copulation; imitation of this call by a human can bring a rail to within 10 m (30 ft). Newly hatched chicks make a soft wheeeez call, and older chicks cheep. The rasping advertising call is readily distinguished from the hwitt-hwitt-hwitt of spotted crake, the monotonous clockwork tak-tak-tak-tak-tak of striped crake, or the quick-quick of Baillon's crake. The corn crake is silent in Africa.