Last week, Loie Evans phoned to tell me there was a Virginia rail at Evergreen Lake. They have been seen and heard at the lake before, but they are not as regularly seen as the sora.
Rails are difficult to see for they live among the reeds and grasses in marshes and seldom come out in the open where you can have a good look at them. They are not particularly shy or afraid of people; they just like to stay in their marsh where they find the food they need.
These are the birds that were responsible for the expressions “as skinny as a rail.” Since their whole life is spent among the reeds and marshes, they have evolved into very skinny birds. They look like someone had tried to pick them up by clasping them between their palms very firmly. From a side view, they look like a fairly typical chicken-like bird, but a front view shows how very thin they are.
Skinny as a rail, they slip their way between grasses, reeds and cattails, unseen by most of us. Fortunately, they are quite talkative and once you learn their calls, announcing their return and claiming their territory, even if you can’t see them or even a wiggling reed, you can identify them and know they are there.
Other times, when they find good foraging in an open space, they will poke and probe in the mud right in front of you, seemingly quite unconcerned by your presence. The Virginia rail is a little larger than the sora. It has an easily imitated call that sounds like “kidick, kidick, kidick,” said in rhythm with you tongue against your teeth. Rails call most frequently at night, very early in the morning and evenings. I have even heard them in the afternoon on dark, rainy days.
It has always seemed strange to me that rails were one of the prized market birds of the past and are far less common today. Because of this, there could not have been much meat on these skinny birds, and I could find no reference that they were especially good flavored. Everything I have read seemed to indicate that they were only OK, but since they were abundant in marshes, they were easily netted and therefore probably fairly cheap.
The Virginia rail is a bit larger than the sora and less common locally. It has a longer, thinner beak, which is a rich rust color as is the breast of the adult bird. The rail family consists of the rails, coots and gallinules. Coots have become very common in the past 50 years and are easily identified by their white beaks and the white frontal shield above the base of the beak. Otherwise, they look like a black or dark-gray duck, commonly seen in large flocks in the open water at the edge of the reeds.
Gallunudes are found in the outer edges of a marsh and in Europe they are known as mud hens. On land, all of these birds have the appearance of some strange chicken-like bird. They has always seemed to me to be a link between shore birds and ducks. There are two larger rails: the clapper rail is found in salt-water marshes along the Atlantic coast, and the largest rail is the king rail found in fresh water marshes and brackish waters along the Gulf Coast and northward into the marshes of the central states and Canada.
The two smallest rails, the black and yellow, are almost impossible to see. They are smaller than the sora, only about bluebird size, and it takes a good deal of watching to see one slip through a marsh.
The clapper rail is only a bit smaller than a crow and the king rail is a bit larger. The clapper rail is easiest to see along the Atlantic coast at high tide when the high water forces them up onto tussocks of grass and reeds as the water rises.
The sora and Virginia rail can be heard in the wetlands of Evergreen Lake at night and will become less vocal as the breeding season ends in July. Young rails are all black and fluffy, like baby chickens. They are precocious and follow their mother as soon as their feathers are dry. All of the rails have long legs and big feet for their size, and climb among the reeds when they need to.
Although rails will fly up out of a marsh when pushed, their flight is labored on short wings. With feet dangling, they almost immediately seem to fall back into the marsh as if they couldn’t fly far. However, they can fly farther because they migrate great distances and have been seen a hundred miles from shore over the ocean.