Birds – Sora

(Porzana carolina)


Length—8 to 9.50 inches.

Male and Female—” Above, olive brown varied with black and gray; front of head, stripe on crown, and line on throat, black; side of head and breast ashy gray or slate; sides of breast spotted with white; flanks barred slate and white; belly white.” (Nuttall.) Bill stout and short (.75 of an inch long). Immature birds have brown breast, no black on head, and a white throat.

Range—Temperate North America; more abundant on the Atlantic than the Pacific slope. Nests from Kansas, Illinois, and New York northward to Hudson Bay; winters from our southern states to West Indies and northern South America.

Season—Common summer resident at the north; winter resident south of North Carolina; sometimes in sheltered marshes farther north.

Where flocks of bobolinks (transformed by a heavy moult into the streaked brown reed birds of the south) congregate to feed upon the wild rice or oats in early autumn, sportsmen bag the soras also by tens of thousands annually, both of these misnamed “ortolans” coming into market in September and October, by which time the sora’s pitifully small, thin body has acquired the only fat it ever boasts. “As thin as a rail” at every other season, however, is a most significant expression, yet many people think it is a fence rail that the adage refers to.

The strongly compressed heads and bodies of all the rail tribe, enabling these birds to thread the maze of aisles among the sedges without causing a blade to quiver and tell the tale of their whereabouts, is almost ludicrous when exposed to view—a rare sight. After one has punted a skiff over the partly submerged grass of their retreats and has waited silent and motionless for endless moments, a dingy little brown, black, and gray bird may walk gingerly out of the reeds, placing one long foot timidly before the other, curling the toes of each foot as it is raised, while with head thrust forward and downward, and with the elevation of the rear end of the body emphasized by the pointed tail that jerks nervously at every step taken, an incarnation of fear moves before you. One old shooter declares he has seen rails swoon and go into fits from fright.

Food gathered from the surface of the ground is picked off with sharp pecks, but all the rails run up the rushes also, clinging with the help of their hind toes to the swaying stem within reach of the grain hanging in tassels at the top. The long front toes, flattened but scarcely lobed, enable them to swim across a ditch or inlet, and all the rails are good divers. Rather than expose themselves as a target for the gunner, they will cling to submerged stalks, with their bills only above water, and allow a skiff to pass over them, without stirring. When thoroughly frightened by the dogs’ constant flushing, and the shooting of their masters in the marsh, or, more particularly, when wounded, many never rise again.

It is always the sportsman’s hope to flush the rails, whose strong legs and skulking habits sufficiently protect them in the sedges, but whose slow, short flight keeps them within range of the veriest tyro. The ‘prentice hand is tried on rails. Trailing their legs after them, and feebly fluttering their wings as they rise just above the tops of the rushes, they soon drop down into them again as if exhausted; yet these are the very birds that migrate from the West Indies to Hudson Bay. Their flight is by no means so feeble as it appears. Darky ” pushers ” enfold the goings and comings, the nesting and incubation of the rails, with all manner of absurd superstitions.

Were it not for the incessant squeaking, “like young pup-pies,” that is kept up in the haunts of soras, especially at dusk, morning or evening, or at the nesting season, or when startled by a sudden noise, we should never suspect there were birds living in the marshes. Pushers in the reedy lakes of Illinois and Michigan, and along the low shores of the James and other quiet rivers, sweetly whistle and call her-wee, her-wee, peep, peep, and kuk, ‘kuk, ‘huh, h, ‘k,’k, ‘huh, until scores of throats reply, and slaughter soon commences. What little tender flesh there is on the rails’ poor bodies, rather flavorless and sapid at the best, is filled with shot for the gourmands to grit their teeth against. As Mrs. Wright says of the bobolinks, so it may be said of the broiled or skewered soras, that they only serve “to lengthen some weary dinner where a collection of animal and vegetable bric-a-brac takes the place of satisfactory nourishment.”

In the sedges that shelter and feed them, the rails also build their matted grassy nest, never far from the water, and indeed often lifted into a tussock of grasses washed by it. The eggs, more drab than buff, but spotted and marked with reddish brown like the Virginia rail’s, may number as many as fifteen; and the glossy black chicks run about on strong legs, but with the creeping timidity of mice, from the hour of hatching.

The Yellow, or New York, or Yellow-breasted Rail (Porzana noveboracensis), an even more skulking, timid species than the sora, has a reputation for rarity that doubtless the blackbirds, bobolinks, and marsh wrens, which alone can penetrate into the mysteries of the sedges, would express differently were they able to retail secrets. This small rail, that measures only seven inches in length, has more wisdom than its larger kin, and refuses to be flushed except in extreme cases, for the gunners to hit during its feeble, fluttering flight. Dogs must be sent into the marshes after the panic stricken birds running through aisles of grasses until about to be overtaken, when they escape by rising from the frying pan of the dogs’ jaws only to fall into the fire of shot from the rifles. Ordinarily they keep so closely concealed among the grasses, that were it not for their croaking call, suggesting the voice of the tree toad, no one would suspect their presence. All rails are more or less nocturnal in their habits, and the yellow-breasted species, more full of fears than any, rarely lifts up its voice, that Nuttall described as an “abrupt and cackling cry ‘krek, ‘krek, ‘krek, krek, kuk, k ‘uk,” after daylight or before sunset. The description of the sora’s habits, which are almost identical with this rail’s, should be read to avoid repetition. In plumage, however, these two birds are quite different, the yellow-breasted rail having black upper parts streaked with brownish yellow and marked with white bars, the buff of the breast growing paler underneath, the dusky flanks barred with white, and the under coverts varied with black, white, and rufous. Its wing linings are white, but these the bird takes good care not to show.

The Little Black Rail, or Crake (Porzana jamaicensis), the smallest of the family, exhibits all the family shyness and fear, which, taken with its obscure coloration and its extreme unwillingness to rise on the wing, keep it almost unknown, although its range extends from Massachusetts, Illinois, and Oregon to Louisiana, the West Indies, and Central America. As its name implies, it is common in Jamaica. Mr. Marsh of that island writes its call “chi-chi-cro-croo-croo, several times repeated in sharp high notes so as to be audible to a considerable distance.” Guided by this call, one may count oneself rarely fortunate to discover the little mouse-like bird that makes it, running swiftly in and out of the sedges. Its head, breast, and under parts are slate color; its fore back and nape are rich brown; its lower back, wings, and tail are brownish black spotted with white, and the flanks and dusky under parts are barred with white.