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Inhabitants of dense swamps, rails glide on foot through low vegetation, rarely flying. All have strong, distinct voices but tend to call primarily at night. Few other birds are so elusive.
Two small species, the Virginia Rail and the Sora, are widespread in the marshes of North America. Both are fairly common, but they’re so adept at staying out of sight that most birders first encounter them by voice. Fortunately, recordings of birds are readily available today online or in apps, making it easy to learn their calls.
Fortunately, these two common ramps usually sound very different. Sora usually gives a sharp look ata plaintive, hissed surrr-eeee, or a downward whinny. Common Virginia Rail calls include a metallic kik kik kik kik kik kik kik and a descending and growling series, hint-hint-hint-hint-hint. It has other vocalizations that are heard much less often (see box below).
View photos of Sora
Listen to the sounds of Sora and Virginia Rail on xeno-canto.org
Seen in the open, these two species can be separated at a glance: their overall colors differ and the sora has a short, stout, yellow beak, while the Virginia rail’s beak is long and thin. However, the Virginia Rail closely resembles two other species, the King Rail and the Ridgway Rail. They are larger, but it is difficult to judge the size of a solitary bird, especially when we are surprised by the unexpected thrill of seeing a rail. It is therefore worth studying their identity in advance.
Learn more about the Virginia Rail on eBird
The King Rail is widespread in summer east of the Rocky Mountains and north to the Great Lakes, more dispersed and localized northward. Further south in the freshwater marshes of the Carolinas in Texas, it is quite common year-round. Virginia Rails in the east are more migratory, breeding in southern Canada and the northern and central states, wintering in the south.
In most parts of the West, nothing is like the Virginia Rail. But along the California coast and locally inland in southern California, Nevada and Arizona, Ridgway Rail is a potential source of confusion. It is very similar to the King Rail, so separating it from the Virginia Rail involves the same process.
The best plumage mark for identification is the facial pattern. On the Virginia Rail, the face is a smooth gray or blue-grey, contrasting with the brown nape and rusty orange-brown neck. On King’s and Ridgway’s rails, the face is variably suffused with buff or brownish, so there is no sharp contrast to the color of the neck. King Rail also often shows a cleaner pattern of black stripes on the back than Virginia Rail.
With practice, form is a good distinction. All of these rails can stretch their necks at times, but Virginia Rail never feels as long as the other two. The King and Ridgway rails look more elongated overall, with longer bodies and legs, while the Virginia still has a more compact look. But it takes a long time in the marshes to develop comparative experience with these shy birds.
What to look for
The size and the shape. About the size of a robin with a very short tail, sturdy legs and a long, pointed beak.
Pattern of the lower parts. Bright rusty orange-brown on the neck and breast, with contrasting black and white barring on the flanks.
Pattern of the upper parts. Olive brown back with fuzzy blackish stripes. Bright reddish-brown on the wing-coverts, often hidden.
Face pattern. The gray or blue-grey face contrasts sharply with the rusty brown of the neck, unlike the similar rail pattern.
Juveniles. Seen in summer, they are much darker and duller than adults, almost blackish on the underparts.
King rail, adult. April in Brazoria County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small
Widespread east of the Rocky Mountains, the King Rail largely overlaps in range and habitat with the Virginia Rail and is the species most likely to be confused with it. The king is a much larger bird – almost twice the length of the Virginia Rail and four times as large – but size can be difficult to judge on a solitary bird surrounded by marsh grass. When fully alert, the King Rail appears longer, but the apparent neck length of both species varies depending on their momentary posture. The most reliable visual mark is the face pattern. On the King Rail, a buff or pale brown wash permeates the face, very different from the contrasting gray face of the Virginia Rail.
Ridgway’s rail, adult. January in Orange County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small
Once thought to be just a western population of Clapper Rail, Ridgway’s Rail is now recognized as a species in its own right, found locally in the salt marshes of coastal California and in the fresh salt marshes of the Southwestern Interior. The three subspecies in the United States differ slightly. This one (R.o. levipes from the southern California coast) is the most colorful. As such, it suggests the King Rail, which lies strictly east of the Rocky Mountains. However, the Virginia Rail can be present in any habitat that supports the Ridgway’s Rail. Ridgway’s larger size and more elongated shape may become apparent with practice, but to be sure, look for Virginia Rail’s sharply contrasting gray face.
Virginia Rail, adult. Chambers County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small
The general pattern of an adult Virginia Rail can seem to change from moment to moment, depending on the arrangement of the feathers. The wing-coverts are bright reddish-brown. They can be quite obvious, like in this photo, or largely hidden by body feathers. Likewise, the black and white bars on the flanks may be largely hidden under the wing, or these feathers may extend above the wing even further than seen here. It’s worth keeping these momentary variations in mind when getting brief views. The most prominent plumage mark, the abrupt change in color between rusty brown neck and gray face, should be evident regardless of the bird’s posture.
Virginia rail, juvenile. Los Angeles County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small
Adult Virginia Rails show very little seasonal variation, other than the bill appearing richer orange-red in spring (and on average a brighter red in males than females), but juveniles are strikingly different. Very dark gray overall, strongly spotted with black on the chest. Their eyes are dark olive at first, unlike the reddish-brown iris color of adults, and their beaks are dark. These birds are only seen in summer and early fall; after their first molt, they look recognizably like adults. Juvenile King’s, Ridgway’s, and Clapper’s Rails are also darker and duller than adults, and separating them from juvenile Virginia Rails may depend on careful assessment of size, shape, and habitat.
The mystery of the “kicker”
In addition to its usual calls, the Virginia Rail utters a loud and distinctive sound ki-ki-ki-ki-KREAAH, the first shrill and metallic notes, the last more grating. Nicknamed the “kicker” call, it has baffled experts for years.
Early ornithologist William Brewster was fascinated by the call. He heard it several times in the swamps of Massachusetts between 1889 and 1901. Although he noted that its sound quality was similar to a Virginia Rail call, it was so infrequent that Brewster assumed it could not be the voice of such a common species. In an article published in The Auk in 1901, he suggested that the “kicker” must be the rare Black Rail.
Amazingly, 60 years later, experts were still debating the source of this vocalization. The eminent Ludlow Griscom wrote in the 1940s that it was probably the Yellow Rail, but by 1955 he had decided it was more likely the Black Rail. The first Peterson Birdsong Field Guide record, released in 1959, included a recording of the call under Yellow Rail. After hearing the record, Chandler Robbins (who would later be praised for his birdwatching skills by ear) argued that it was Black Rail instead.
Finally, in the late 1960s, several observers confirmed that the call “kicker” is produced by the Virginia Rail. This is now a well-established fact. But a mystery remains: why don’t we hear this call more often? This is a good question to consider for the future.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.