The Virginia Rail is a small, reddish bird with grey cheeks. The bill is also reddish and is long and slightly downward curving. The Rail has a short, upturned tail with a banded black and white flank below. Males and females are very similar and cannot be sexed in the field.
The Virginia Rail can be found locally in its wetland habitat throughout the northern and western United States, SW Ontario, S British Columbia, and S Quebec. Its wintering range includes Mexico, all of Florida, and the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Rails perfer freshwater marshes and wetlands. The most important features of their habitat include shallow water, an emergent cover of cattails and bulrushes, and a high invertebrate abundance in the water. They forage in standing water, moist soil, and mudflats.
Pairs are thought to be monogamous. Either males or females may initiate bond formation, which spans a period of one or two weeks. During this time, pairs engage in mutual preening, courtship feeding, copulation, and defense of territory. Nests are built in May. Both the male and female build the nest, which is located in marshes containing cattails and bulrushes. A canopy is often built above the nest by bending and weaving adjacent vegetation. Along with the nest, numerous "dummy" nests are built within their territory. Clutch size varies greatly with geography, but the average size seems to be 8-9 eggs. Both sexes incubate, and the young hatch about 19 days after incubation begins. Young are covered with black down and development progresses rapidly; young begin to run down the nest ramp to drink and swim only 11 hours after hatching.
Virginia Rails have strong legs and can walk and run on floating marsh vegetation or on dense vegetation. They fly rarely, except for migration. Their wings are generally weak and they are not graceful in flight, often dropping to the ground after short bursts of flight.
Using its long, curved bill, the Virginia Rail probes the muddy soils and shallow waters of its habitat for food. It most often consumes small aquatic invertebrates, such as beetles, spiders, snails, and true bugs. In the winter, when these foods are less available, it also eats aquatic plants and seeds.
Approximately 100,000 rails are harvested annually in the United States and Canada through hunting.
Although the Virginia Rail is a registered game species in most of the United States and Canada, it is rarely harvested by hunters. Degradation of its wetland habitat may have caused a decrease in populations. No special regulations have been made for the Rail, but general waterfowl management regulations have proven beneficial to its wetland environment. The species population is now considered stable. This observation may or may not be accurate, since these rails have not been studied extensively.
Because they are reclusive birds and quick runners, Virginia Rails are rarely seen and many of their characteristics and behaviors have not been documented. They can be recognized in their environments by their distinctive grunting vocalization.
Jennifer Roof (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Conway, Courtney J. 1995. The Birds of North America. No. 173. The American Ornithologists' Union.