The Secretive Virginia Rail

September 28, 2022

When checking on one of the video cameras that I had placed in Davis Creek, I approached quietly to observe if anything was present at the small water hole. Something moving in the woody debris caught my eye and I saw it was a Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola. It is such a treat to see this bird outside its normal habitat of thick tules and cattails in the wetlands, as it is a very secretive bird that is mostly heard and not seen.

The Virginia Rail is a small chicken-like bird that lives in shallow wetland areas with mudflats to hunt for food in. During the winter they venture into other areas like the grasslands and the riparian corridors of Outlet and Davis Creek. The quick glimpses that one gets of this bird show us a long-legged round body, with a long salmon-orange bill that is slightly drooping. It has white barring along the sides and a cinnamon-colored neck. The adult birds have a grey face patch. Rails are a group of birds in the Rallidae family which includes crakes, coots, and gallinules. These are small to medium-sized, ground-living birds that are generally associated with wetlands but are found in diverse habitats all over the world. The word ‘rail’ comes from the Latin, radere, meaning “to scrape” probably because their sounds are often raspy and eerie.

The Virginia Rail that I am watching before me has many grunting, chuckling, and squeaking sounds. Sometimes it sounds like a pig grunting. I have heard all those sounds in the wetlands of Little Lake Valley, and it always makes me smile knowing it is the chicken-like Virginia Rail making those sounds. This species eats primarily aquatic insects, insect larvae, crayfish, snails, earthworms, small fish, and some seeds though not as much as the smaller Sora rail that it shares our wetland habitats with.

An interesting fact about the Virginia Rail is that it is flattened from side to side so that it can move through thick tule and cattail habitats. Its forehead feathers are tough in order to withstand the stiff and sometimes sharp vegetation. Even though their feet are designed to run through the mud without sinking or getting stuck, they can also swim and dive for food. As stated in the Cornell Library “All About Birds,” as a group, rails have the highest ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles of any bird, and this may explain why they often do more walking than flying.

As I am watching this active rail poking the mud and water with its long pinkish colored beak, I see it swallow small fish and beetle larvae. Its quick actions are purposeful and focused. It finally notices me and heads off in the other direction away from me. It feels special to have watched this secretive rail for fifteen or so minutes with no interruptions.