California black rails (Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus) occur in two disjunct regions: the southwestern USA (western Arizona and southern California) and northern California (Sacramento Valley and the San Francisco Bay area). We examined current status of black rails in the southwestern USA by repeating survey efforts first conducted in 1973–1974 and again in 1989, and also examined wetland plant species associated with black rail distribution and abundance. We detected 136 black rails in Arizona and southern California. Black rail numbers detected during past survey efforts were much higher than the numbers detected during our more intensive survey effort, and hence, populations have obviously declined. Plants that were more common at points with black rails included common threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens), arrowweed (Pluchea sericea), Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii), seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia), and mixed shrubs, with common threesquare showing the strongest association with black rail presence. Plant species and non-vegetative communities that were less common at points with black rails included California bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus), southern cattail (Typha domingensis), upland vegetation, and open water. Black rails were often present at sites that had some saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima), but were rarely detected in areas dominated by saltcedar. We recommend that a standardized black rail survey effort be repeated annually to obtain estimates of black rail population trends. Management of existing emergent marshes with black rails is needed to maintain stands of common threesquare in early successional stages. Moreover, wetland restoration efforts that produce diverse wetland vegetation including common threesquare should be implemented to ensure that black rail populations persist in the southwestern USA.
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