When Rails Don't Act Like Rails

Crack open your favorite field guide and the text next to the rail plates will invariably describe them as "secretive" or "more often heard than seen." For about 10 months of the year, this is the case. From about October 1st through July 31st, views of rails range from fleeting to non-existent. On those rare occasions when you spot an adult rail out in the open, it normally sees you at about the same time and promptly sprints for the cover of dense marsh vegetation...GONE! For birds that look a bit clumsy and appear to have been assembled by a committee, they can run incredibly fast. Rails get their name from having bodies that are somewhat compressed laterally, as in thin as a rail. This structural advantage allows them to run swiftly through dense marsh vegetation, so they rarely fly in the face of danger.


When out in the open, young Virginia Rails (above) and Soras (below) look like part chicken and part sandpiper, with tails on loan from a wren. Long, sturdy legs make for quick getaways and their over-sized feet and long toes work like snowshoes, allowing them to run across soft mud without sinking in.


Despite their retiring nature, there is a short period following the breeding season when the newly-independent juveniles of some rail species are much more likely to be seen in plain view. During a recent birding trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (in southeastern Oregon), I came across a partially evaporated wetland where I found no fewer than seven juvenile rails--four Soras and three Virginia Rails--feeding on the exposed mud around the remaining pools. I spent nearly an hour photographing the hatch-year birds in this photo essay. They were in full view for almost the entire time. They were startled once or twice and jetted back to cover, but each time they came back into view in less than a minute.


Note the short, rather dull brownish bill on this young Virginia Rail. It is not as long it would be on an adult and it lacks the bright reddish-orange lower mandible one would see on an adult. Also note the olive-green eye color on this bird. Adult Virginia Rails have blood-red eyes. This bird also shows extensive black feathering below with white on the chin, throat, lower breast, and belly. Adults Virginia Rails are almost entirely burnt orange on the throat, neck, breast and upper belly.

Apparently, juvenile rails are not hard-wired to run for cover, or at least they don't stay there long. When they do scamper out of view, quite often they come wandering back out into the open within a minute of two and resume feeding as though nothing had happened.

Like the young of many shorebirds, quail, and grouse, rails are precocial. They can leave the nest almost immediately after hatching. When first hatched, most young rails look like black cottonballs with legs and a beak. During this period, they may be seen darting across an opening in the vegetation in the company of their parents. Within a few weeks they grow to full size and attain their first complete feather set. By the time they are a month old, they are fully independent (Conway 1995, Melvin et al. 1996). In this juvenal plumage young birds often look quite different than their parents, which was the case with the unattended juvenile Soras and Virginia Rails that I photographed at Malheur on 29 August 2009. 


At first glance, one might mistake this juvenile Sora for a Yellow Rail. It shows none of the gray on the underparts or black in the face that would be seen on a adult Sora. Unlike Soras and Virginia Rails, Yellow Rails are nearly impossible to see, regardless of age. Note the extensive white barring on the lower flanks and the narrow white edges on folded flight feathers. A Yellow Rail would show just a few thin white bars on the mostly blackish flanks and broad buffy edges to the folded flight feathers. Additionally, Yellow Rails look like they have no tail, while Soras show a comparatively long tail that is almost always cocked up and flicked with each step as they walk about with a lurching motion.

Since rails are so infrequently seen, it is easy to spend many minutes watching them on those scarce occasions when they are viewer-friendly. August and early September seem to be prime time for actually seeing rails. By this point in the year the young are fully grown, independent of their much more wary parents, and they have yet to migrate. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where rainfall is minimal July-September, water levels at the marshes and seasonal wetlands where these species breed start drying up during late summer/early fall, forcing rails out into the open to reach the water's edge.


Virginia Rail is an uncommon to common wintering bird along much of the West Coast and Sora winters regularly north to central California and occasionally winters in Oregon. However, across much of North America, these species are only present during the breeding season. By early October they will have migrated south to more temperate climates where, presumably, they learn to act more like rails.

Literature Cited:

Conway, Courtney J. 1995. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), The Birds of North American Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online: http://bna.cornell.edu/bna/species/173

Melvin, Scott M. and James P. Gibbs. 1996 Sora (Porzana carolina), The Birds of North American Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.cornell.edu/bna/species/250

All photos taken by Dave Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens. 


When I lived in Mesa, AZ and was just getting into birding, I’d regularly see Sora along the Salt River, so much so that I thought they were a very easy to see and common bird. Then I started “trying” to see Virginia Rails. My first Virginia Rails were seen on New Year’s Day 2008 at the Hyatt Wetlands area in Boise. Very cool! Malheur NWR is a fantastic place! I wish I could go more often.


When I lived in central Kansas, I was treated several times to views of adult King Rails out in the open with their chicks. When they have mouths to feed, these adults tend to forget their normal shy behavior and wander out to the middle of mudflats with young in tow.


We saw both Sora and Virginia Rails, mostly immature at Klamath Marsh. 8/20 & 8/26. Have photos though most are not very good. One could be the yellow rail we were so hoping to see. Not sure yet.


I found a bird in my yard a couple of weeks ago that I was unfamiliar with and believe it might be a Virginia Rail. It is a dark chocolate reddish brown, is very thin, with a short tail and fairly long, curved beak. I found it just lying in my yard. I live abour 1/4 mile from a lake and the area nearest me is somewhat marshy. How can I identify this bird for sure? I have it in a plastic bag in my freezer. I teach Biology and would like to share it with my class. Any danger in doing this?

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