You may recall from previous essays that I have an intense fascination with dragonflies. Pursuit of them often finds me creeping quietly around the edges of ponds rife with cattails and rushes, a practice that has led me to cross paths with another intriguing Island County creature, the Virginia rail. I decided to learn more about this bird which also goes under such colorfully descriptive names as freshwater marsh hen, little red-breasted rail, long billed rail, and small mud hen. Its scientific name is Rallus limicola with Rallus being Latin for rail-like birds and limacola, Latin for mud dweller.
Virginia rails belong to the taxonomic family Rallidae which means they are closely related to sora and coots, species also found in Island County. Coots have a duck-like appearance but sora rather resemble Virginia rails. The most obvious distinguishing feature to tell them apart is the bill. While the bill of Virginia rails is fairly long and reddish in color, that of sora is short, stout, and yellow.
The thing that surprised me the most the first time I encountered a Virginia rail was its size. I had seen pictures of them in books and expected them to be medium to large birds. With a length of 9-10 inches and wingspan of around 14 inches, they are only about the size of a robin.
Virginia rails have a number of adaptations to their habitat and way of life. The coloration of their feathers blends shades of brown, cinnamon, gray, and black to help them meld into the vegetation that surrounds them. A thin body (“thin as a rail”) helps them maneuver through thick rushes and cattails and their very long toes distribute their weight so they can walk across mud and floating mats of vegetation. One researcher reports that rails have the highest leg muscle to flight muscle ratio of any bird group, which makes sense for a bird that primarily walks and runs rather than flying. Virginia rails can fly but it is usually for short distances and they are more likely to run to safety in thick vegetation rather than taking wing when encountering a predator. They can also swim and dive.
Some Virginia rail populations migrate from their summer range across the northern US and southern Canada to wintering sites in southern states and Mexico. Along the West Coast however they are found year round and a check of eBird indicates that Virginia rails have been reported in Island County all 12 months of the year.
Virginia rails are omnivores. They feed primarily on insects but also earthworms, crustaceans, snails, and other small animals. In the winter when insects are not as plentiful, they also rely on vegetation including duckweed and seeds from grasses and other marsh plants.
Newly hatched Virginia rails are covered with black down. They are ready to leave the nest after just four days, can fly at four weeks, and females are sexually mature at 6 weeks of age. Eggs and nestlings face many dangers including wrens, hawks, crows, weasels, muskrats, mink and raccoons. The danger continues after they leave the nest with large fish, frogs, sandhill cranes, coyotes and owls threatening their survival.
Keep an eye out for Virginia rails when wildlife watching around ponds and marshy areas. They are quite secretive and rarely venture far from the cover of cattails or other tall vegetation so I always consider a sighting to be a moment to treasure. Folks who bird by ear tell me they hear them much more frequently than they see them. For more information, pictures, and sound recordings of the fascinating but seldom seen Virginia rail, check out this website by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Virginia_Rail .