Rails have rightly been called shadow birds. Both species that occur here regularly, the Virginia rail and the sora, are small — barely robin-sized — chubby, drab-colored birds that lurk, seldom-appearing, in the cattails. When you are fortunate enough to see one, it appears a bit like a small chicken, the Virginia rail with a long decurved bill, the sora’s more normalsized but bright yellow. (Rails are in fact closely related to chickens.)
Fortunately for birders these species have distinctive calls that are not only easy to identify, but that, when imitated or played with an iPhone bird app, attract the elusive birds. Those calls are strange as are those of so many of the marsh birds. (Recall, for example, the American bittern’s pumping note, the sandhill crane’s bugled rattle, the night-heron’s quawk and the least bittern’s hoo-hoo-hoo.) The Virginia rail’s best-known call is a series of kadicks and the sora’s is a horse-like whinny. Both calls are remarkably loud for such small birds. Best times to hear them are in early morning or late evening.
These species nest in those reeds as well, some of the cattail fronds partially woven into a flat platform only inches above water on which their eggs are laid. Some nests have canopies as well. Very shortly after those eggs hatch, the tiny black chicks head off to follow their parents through that watery jungle of reeds.
Rails are game birds and there is a hunting season in New York, generally from September to early November. The bag limit is liberal, 8 per day with 24 in possession. Fortunately for the birds, however, very few hunters seek them in this area. And no wonder: rails are tough to flush, much preferring running or even submerging in water like grebes with only their heads showing. But thirty-six other states also allow rail hunting and the largest takes are in the states around the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, as one local hunter suggested to me, “as with mourning doves, we raise them for Southerners to shoot.”
Rails are migratory, both species retreating only as far as our southern states and Mexico. That still requires hundreds of miles of flight and I find it amazing that they achieve it as they are very weak-winged. Their reluctant flights over marshes are like barnyard chickens trying to become airborne. Occasionally, perhaps for this very reason, individuals overwinter and somehow manage to find food.