This species, with its long bill and toes, short wings, and flat-sided body, is an excellent type of the rails in general; although the length of the beak and toes is variable, the general appearance of a rail is unmistakeable in the hand, and even when at large the slinking gait, flicking up of the tail, aversion to leave cover, and heavy fluttering flight with legs drooping at first, mark off these otherwise insignificant birds at once.
The Indian water-rail is about as big as a snipe, but its bill is shorter and stouter, though still noticeably long; as in all rails, the beak is hard and strong, not soft as in snipes. The plumage is very unpretentious, but yet recognizable, with the black striping on the brown upper-parts, grey face and breast, and black-and-white zebra-barring of the sides. The only bit of bright colour is the red at the root of the lower jaw, and even this is replaced by a yellowish tint in young birds.
This rail is simply a local race of the well-known water-rail at home (Rallus aquaticus), and this Western typical form has sometimes been got in the Himalayas in winter. The only differences between the two are, that in the Indian bird there is a dark streak running back from the eye, and a wash of brown on the breast, these parts being pure grey in the Western water-rail. The Indian bird itself is not a resident in India, its home being in north-eastern Asia ; but it is a fairly common winter visitor to the northern provinces of India, and ranges as far as Arrakan. It is found in grass or rush cover on wet ground, and is difficult to put up ; its food consists of small snails, insects, worms, &c, but it also takes some vegetable food, seeds, leaves, and bulbs. These long-billed rails may be more insectivorous than the shorter-billed kinds, but rails as a family are quite as omnivorous as the game birds and ducks. The breeding call-note of the European water-rail is a groaning sound, called "sharming"; the Indian bird croaks like a frog, but probably has a similar note in the breeding season.