Nature Nugget – Mystery Birds of the Marsh

The family Rallidae, which occurs worldwide on every continent but Antarctica, consists of 150 species of rails, crakes, and wood-rails, and also includes the moorhens, gallinules, and coots. They are found everywhere except in Polar Regions, completely waterless deserts, and mountains above snowline. They occupy various habitats from forests to wetlands, grasslands to remote, scrub-covered islands, and coral cays. Many live a secretive and skulking existence on the ground in dense vegetation and are difficult to observe. Their bodies are short and often laterally compressed for ease of movement through dense, low vegetation, whence comes the expression “thin as a rail.” In spite of their apparent weak flight, many rails undertake intercontinental migrations and have even colonized remote and widespread oceanic islands.

In North America, there are six species of rails, all of which are secretive and closely tied to marsh and wetland habitats. The largest, the King Rail at a length of up to 19 inches, inhabits freshwater wetlands throughout much of the eastern United States. It is bright rufous overall with a long, slightly drooping bill, which it uses to catch crayfish, small fishes, amphibians, and insects. Incubating birds seldom flush from their nest until an intruder comes within ten feet; then they will often flush toward the intruder and strike him. The rail then gives a distraction display and leads the intruder away from its nest. The Clapper Rail of the coastal marshes is a paler, saltwater version of the King Rail. Its diet, habits, and calls are very similar to those of the King Rail, and many scientists believe they are the same species. Downy young of both the King and Clapper Rails have vestigial claws at the carpal joints of their wings.

The most common rails in North America are the Virginia Rail and Sora. These medium-sized rails are common migrants, breeding in the north and wintering in the south. They prefer freshwater marshes, especially ones with cattails. The Virginia Rail is a small, half-sized version of the King Rail, but with gray cheeks and reddish legs and bill. It feeds on invertebrates and fish, which it catches with its long bill. The Sora has a very short, stubby bill that is bright yellow. It is mostly a seedeater but will also take insects and snails.

The two smallest North American rails are also the most difficult to see. The Yellow Rail, at five inches in length, breeds in wet meadows of southern Canada and the northern United States, where it gives its Morse-code-like ticking calls. It winters in hay meadows and coastal marshes along the Gulf Coasts. It has a short, stubby, yellow bill, like the Sora’s, and a similar diet. Seen in flight, it has a bold, white patch in the secondaries, which no other North American rail has. At 4.5 inches, the Black Rail is the smallest rail in the world. It is quite probably the most secretive and difficult to see bird in all of North America. In spite of its secretiveness, its call, which is given usually at night, can be heard a mile away. It prefers the high portion of salt marshes, wet meadows, and shallow freshwater marshes. It is found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and locally inland and in the west.

“He who studies most deeply into the mysteries of nature will realize most fully his own ignorance and weakness. He will realize that there are depths and heights which he cannot reach, secrets which he cannot penetrate, vast fields of truth lying before him unentered.” Education, 133.

David Arbour writes from his home in DeQueen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: