Birds – True Rails

The true Rails may be typified by the genus Rallus, which, according to Sharpe, includes some twenty-one forms, all but five of which are natives of the New World. These differ from their nearest relatives in having the slender bill as long as or longer than the tarsus. They are all very similar in their habits, and frequently in appearance as well. One of our best-known and most widely distributed species is the Virginia Rail (R. virginianus), which is found throughout the whole of temperate North America, passing as far north as British Columbia and Hudson’s Bay, and wintering from the southern part of its summer range to Guatemala. It is about nine and one-half inches long, olive brownish above, broadly striped with blackish, with the wings and tail dark grayish brown, and the wing-coverts deep rusty, while the throat is white and the under parts cinnamon-rufous, barred or spotted on the flanks, and under tail-coverts with black and white. The Virginia Rail prefers very wet marshes, where it can wade rather than swim, although it can both swim and dive if forced by circumstances to do so. It is a very secretive bird and its presence might be almost unsuspected if it were not especially looked for, and like other members of its group it can hardly be forced to take wing. In spring it has a peculiar grunting note that has been likened to the sounds produced by a hungry pig, and at night or during very cloudy days the male utters an often-repeated guttural note that Mr. Brewster describes as cut, cutta-cutta-cutta. This “when heard at a distance of only a few yards has a vibrating, almost unearthly quality, and seems to issue from the ground directly beneath one’s feet.” The food of this species consists of aquatic insects, snails, worms, and various seeds. The nest is placed on the ground in marshes, generally in a tussock of grass, and is a rather neat affair of grasses. The eggs are from six to twelve in number, and have a creamy white ground over which is spread spots and speckles of rufous-brown. The King Rail (R. elegans) is what may be called a larger edition of the Virginia Rail, resembling it quite closely in all but size, being from seventeen to nineteen inches in length. It is, however, generally much lighter above, and has the wings and tail olive-gray, the neck and breast cinnamon-rufous, and the abdomen and sides rufous, barred with white. It frequents the fresh-water marshes of the eastern United States, but is not a very abundant species and comparatively little is known of its habits. Its nest is made in marshes and is often raised several inches above the general surface by means of withered weeds and grasses; the number of eggs is usually nine or ten. The Clapper Rail (R. crepitans), an allied form of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, is a frequenter of grassy, salt-water marshes and mangrove swamps, and although not exactly gregarious, lives somewhat in colonies and is frequently found in great numbers. It is a shy, skulking bird, rarely taking wing, and when it does so, flying with a heavy, labored flight. It feeds on small crabs, minute crustaceans, and seeds, and in fall becomes excessively fat, when it is highly esteemed for food. Local races of this form are known in Louisiana and Florida, and several other species are known in various parts of North America. Of the Old World representatives, the Water Rail (R. aquaticus) is found in Europe and central Asia in summer and in northern Africa and India in winter, and the Caffre Rail (R. caerulescens) in South Africa, while the Indian Rail (R. indicus) is a native of eastern Siberia and Japan, returning southward in winter. The habits of all are similar.

The Sora or Carolina Rail (Porzana carolina) of temperate North America may be taken as the representative of another large and widely distributed genus of some sixteen species. It differs from the true Rails in having a short, stout bill which is not more than two thirds the length of the tarsus. It is about eight and one half inches long and is more or less olive-brown above and white below, with the front of the head, chin, and throat deep black, and the flanks barred with black. It is an inhabitant of fresh-water marshes, where, especially during the migrations, they often congregate in thousands. They feed largely on seeds, particularly those of the wild rice, and in fall become very fat and are then killed in great numbers for the table. Like the others of its race it is shy and rarely seen unless searched for, and when standing silent and motionless among the reeds and rushes of its home is almost invisible. It has a variety of notes and calls, especially during the nesting season, and the clear, whistled kee-wee from a thousand voices in a well-stocked marsh suggests the “springtime chorus of piping frogs.” They breed in the marshes, building a very slight nest of grasses on some bog or tussock, and lay from seven to twelve drab-colored, brown-spotted eggs.