Birds – Virginia Rail

(Rallus virginianus)



Length—8.50 to 10 inches.

Male and Female—Like small king rails; streaked with dark brown and yellowish olive above; reddish chestnut wing coverts; plain brown on top of head and back of neck; a white eyebrow; throat white; breast and sides bright rufous; flanks, wing linings, and under tail coverts broadly barred with dark brown and white; eyes red.

Range—From British Provinces to Guatemala and Cuba; nests from New York, Ohio, and Illinois northward; winters from near the southern limit of its nesting range southward.

Season—Summer resident, April to October, north of Washington.

When the original grant of Queen Elizabeth included nearly all the territory east of the Mississippi that the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not take in, the Virginia rail’s name would have been more appropriate than it is today; for it is by no means a local bird, as its name might imply, and neither on the coast nor in the interior, north and south, is it rare. Short of wing, with a feeble, fluttering flight when flushed from the marsh, into which it quickly drops again, as if incapable of going farther, this small land lover can nevertheless migrate immense distances. One straggler from a flock going southward recently fell exhausted on the deck of a vessel off the Long Island coast nearly a hundred miles at sea. The ornithologist must frequently smile at the mysteries and superstitions associated with the nesting and migrating habits of this and other rails by the unintelligent.

Doubtless there are many more of all species of rails in the United States than even one who scoured the marshes would suppose. It is only at high tide along the coast that a boat may enter their marshy retreats far enough to flush any birds. The rest, secure in the tall sedges, run in and out of the tall grass on well beaten paths and through aisles of their own making without giving a hint as to their whereabouts. This bird, like the king rail, is frequently called a fresh water, marsh, or mud hen; not because it eschews salt water, but because, even near the sea, it is apt to find out those spots in the bay where fresh water springs bubble up rather than the brackish. Only the bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds, feeding with them on wild oats or rice, the swamp sparrows, marsh wrens, and other companions of the morass, know how many rails are hidden among the bulrushes, sedges, and bushes.

During May, when a nest of grasses is built on the ground, in a tussock that screens from six to twelve pale buff, brown spotted eggs; and in June, when a brood of downy black chicks comes out of the shell, the penetrating voice of the Virginia rail incessantly calls out cut, cutta-cutta-cutta to his mate. ” When heard at a distance of only a few yards,” says Brewster, ” it has a vibrating, almost unearthly quality, and seems to issue from the ground directly beneath one’s feet. The female, when anxious about her eggs or young, calls ki-ki-ki in low tones, and kiu much like a flicker. The young of both sexes in autumn give, when startled, a short, explosive kep or kik, closely similar to that of the Carolina rail.” Still another sound is a succession of pig-like grunts, made early in the morning, late in the after-noon, or in cloudy weather.. Confusing as are the notes of the different rails, they must be learned if one is to know the shy skulkers, that, unlike a good child, are so much more often heard than seen.