In early September a friend and I slipped a canoe onto Upper Rice Lake in Clearwater County to harvest wild rice. It was a gorgeous and calm Sunday morning on a day that promised a bountiful yield of this wonderfully delectable grain. Despite the fact that dense and lush beds of ripe wild rice literally covered the surface of the lake, much to our surprise we had it all to ourselves.
But not quite.
Rafts of American coots were everywhere, as were tremendous numbers of blue-winged teal, mallards, and other unidentified ducks. Canada geese were abundant as well, as were a couple of dozen trumpeter swans. And another bird was plentiful, too. Indeed, in our six hours of ricing, I lost count of the number of flushes we observed.
Our little feathered friends flushing silently from wild rice beds were none other than what is often described as simply, “diminutive” soras. This species of rail, common in marshes throughout Minnesota, are especially common in cattail and wild rice habitats. Their unmistakable vocalizations, which are often described as “horse-like whinnies” are long, high-pitched descending whistles, or loud whistled “kooEE, kooEEs”.
Sora rails, contrary to folklore, do not spend the wintertime hibernating buried in wetland muck underneath the ice. On this notion the late artist and naturalist John J. Audubon wrote: “Many wonderful tales were circulated to convince the world of the truth of this alleged phenomenon; but the fact was, as you will naturally anticipate, that the birds merely shifted their quarters, as no doubt they will continue to do, so long as the climate becomes too cold for them in winter.”
In fact the tiny sora rail, between eight and ten inches long and three ounces in weight, do indeed migrate – as do other seasonal wetland birds – albeit they often do so in the dark of night. When the birds are flushed from cover they appear to be weak fliers, barely flying over the tops of wetland vegetation before fluttering quickly into nearby cover. Soras are shy by nature and rarely step far from the protection of dense coverts.
It’s interesting to read the avian species accounts of Audubon’s. He held a particular disdain for fallacies often purported by uninformed souls. He further wrote on the subject, “Superstitious notions and absurd fancies occupied the place of accurate knowledge in the minds of people too earnestly engaged in more important pursuits, to attend to the history of the animals around them…”
Regarding the pervading inaccuracies of the time, Audubon wrote of the assigned farces of other species such as swallows seeking refuge under the ice instead of migrating in the fall; that geese are not the offspring of sea-shells; and swans (chanting) their own requiem or allowing hummingbirds to hitch rides on their backs as they fly each year their migratory routes.
Moreover, Audubon wrote sarcastically of such myths that “Students of nature have gradually rectified the various errors into which our ancestors had fallen; and we should now just as readily expect to see a shoal of fishes issuing from beneath the plough, as to see a flock of Rails emerge from the mud, shake themselves, and fly off.”
Like other species of rails, sora rails are not comfortable foraging in the open and tend to inhabit wetlands overgrown with tall emergent vegetation such as cattail, reed, sedge, and wild rice. Within such environs the skulking sora hunts for food. Topping the list of good things to eat includes mollusks and insects, especially the aquatic larval forms like dragonfly and mosquito larvae. Later in the summer the birds feast on grains of wild rice and the seeds of sedge, smartweed, and grasses.
Physically, the sora is very adept at life in the marsh. Small and plump with longish legs and slender non-webbed chicken-like toes, the minute-sized bird deftly navigates the tangles of wetland vegetation as effortlessly as a snake through grass. They have the ability to practically walk on water, utilizing floating vegetative debris for support as they go about their lives. Soras also negotiate wetland vegetation by clinging to and hopping from plant stem to plant stem, thus making as much use, if not more, of vertical substrate as the horizontal.
If you’re lucky enough to catch site of the sora, you might note its habit of peeking out as though checking around the corners of a building before venturing onto the street from the back alley. A short and stubby yellow bill, black patch on the face and throat, grayish below, and brownish above with gray cheeks marks the sora’s coloration. Both sexes are similar in appearance.
Despite the fact that the sora remains misunderstood and mysterious to many people, the bird is a common, graceful, and handsome denizen of our Minnesota marshes. As we now know, entering a state of torpor encased in mud is not a component of sora natural history, as John J. Audubon conceded: “So rapid has been the progress of ornithology in particular, that I should hesitate before asserting that any American, however uncultured, now believes that Rails burrow in the mud.”
Though the sora is a game bird and can be hunted, few hunters put in the effort to pursue this challenging bird. Small and secretive – “skinny as a rail” – the sora is a bird to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.