Get your feet wet to spot the elusive rail


It’s impossible to prove a negative, but not finding something does not prove it is absent.

For example, at least one species of rail (an elusive group of marsh birds that are notoriously difficult to find) can probably be found in large cattail marshes. But good luck finding one.


Rails, gallinules, and coots live amid the dense vegetation that surrounds lakes, swamps, and marshes. Most species are seldom noticed.

We know they are there because, in most states, a rail hunting season opens next month. Can’t have a hunting season on something that doesn’t exist.

Perhaps it’s the difficulty of finding these birds that appeals to rail hunters. I’ve never met a rail hunter (they seem to be about as rare as rails), so I don’t know what motivates them.

I have read, however, that in the bayous of Louisiana rails are considered quite tasty. (But then, in the bayous of Louisiana anything that breathes is considered a delicacy.)

In most parts of the country, rails are more frequently a target of birders than hunters. The same qualities that make rails elusive targets make them just as difficult to nail with binoculars.

Back in 2007, for example, a tiny rare black rail weighing about one ounce created an internet sensation when birders found one in an Ohio marsh.

Of the nine species of U.S. rails, I’ve seen six.


Walk along the Anhinga Trail in the Florida Everglades, and purple and common gallinules and American coots are hard to miss.

Coots frequent larger marshes with open water just about anywhere. They may be walking in the mud along the water’s edge or swimming like ducks. But a quick glimpse of the coot’s chicken-like bill readily distinguishes it from ducks.

Of all the rails, coots are the most common and widespread. They are perhaps best known as the mascot of Corporal Klinger’s beloved Toledo Mud Hens on television’s M*A*S*H.

Their charcoal bodies and white bills make them easy to recognize. And while swimming they often dive to feed on submerged vegetation. Fleshy lobes on their toes give coots the paddle power they need for diving.


The remaining six species of rails are elusive denizens of the marsh. Cryptically colored and streaked with earth tone markings, these true rails rarely leave the protective cover of dense marsh vegetation.

Their bodies are compressed from side to side, making it easier for them to pass through the grasses, cattails, and reeds that characterize most wetlands. (Hence the expression, “Thin as a rail.”) And their long, skinny toes enable them to walk on soft, muddy bottoms.

King, yellow, and black rails are the most difficult to see because they are uncommon as well as elusive. Not coincidentally, these are the three rails that I’ve never seen.

The major reasons these rails are uncommon are habitat destruction and water pollution.

Rails are just one more reason conservationists fight to protect and conserve the nation’s shrinking wetlands. It’s an old refrain, but wetlands support myriad forms of life.

The remaining three species — sora, clapper and Virginia rails — offer birders an exciting challenge.

Clapper rails live in coastal salt marshes and are rarely seen inland. Virginia rails and soras are widespread inhabitants of both fresh and salt water marshes.

Get your feet wet

To see rails, expect to get your feet wet unless there’s a boardwalk passing through the marsh.

As you explore a marsh or wetland, stop, look and listen often. The best times to look for them are early and late in the day.

Scan the marsh’s edge with binoculars or, better yet, a spotting scope. Watch for movement along the zone where water meets vegetation.

Virginia rails are about nine inches long, have long bills and rich chestnut-colored wing patches. Soras are about an inch smaller, but they have a short, thick, yellow bill.

Both have harsh calls that do not lend themselves to written description. Once heard, however, these calls will be forever remembered as the unforgettable sounds of the marsh.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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