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Blane Klemek column: Rail species are secretive birds

I grew quite fond of and became very familiar with two species of birds that many people have either never seen or are aware exist. Each bird rarely makes itself visible, hence they're often referred to as "secretive species" and are much more likely to be heard than seen.

In both the literal and figurative sense, the birds' "low profile" is such that each species is known for not only their enigmatic lifestyle, but also their diminutive size. Here are two birds that will elude your high-priced optics even when you know they're there: the sora rail and Virginia rail.

Indeed, of the 305 bird surveys on 41 wetlands that I completed during the summers of 1998-99 using playback techniques - that is, playing recorded rail vocalizations from a game-caller and speaker within prime rail habitat - I observed with my own two eyes just a handful of these incredible birds. The vast majority of my observations were purely auditory.

The unmistakable horse-like "whinnies" described as long, high-pitched descending whistles or loud whistled "kooEE, kooEE" were overwhelmingly the only glimpses I ever got of the sora. Meanwhile, the "gik gik gik gidik gidik gidik gidik" call of the male Virginia rail was normally all I observed of this species. As such, their interesting vocalizations were all the assurances I required in order to record with confidence their presence or absence.

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, weighing not even three ounces, do indeed migrate - as do other seasonal wetland birds such as Virginia rail - albeit they usually do so in the dark of night. When either species of bird is flushed from cover, they appear to be weak fliers, barely flying over the tops of slough grasses and cattails before fluttering quickly into nearby cover. Both species are shy and rarely step far from the protection of dense vegetation.

Virginia rails, which are one of six species of rails (including the sora) that occur in North America, resemble two of their larger relatives: the clapper rail and king rail. These three species are somewhat plump and long-billed little birds with stout legs that, when compared to look-alike avifauna such as various species of long-legged shorebirds, are short in comparison.

Meanwhile, sora rails, with their chicken-like beaks - indeed, overall appearance suggests a tiny chicken - are very similar looking to the other two species of rails: the yellow rail and black rail. And of the six rail species in all, only three occur in Minnesota - Virginia rail, yellow rail and sora.

Like other species of rails, sora and Virginia rails are not comfortable foraging in the open. Both species inhabit marshes overgrown with medium and tall emergent vegetation such as cattails, reeds, rushes, wild rice, smartweed and sedges, as well as floating vegetation like water shield, pond lily and duckweed. Within such environments, the Virginia rail and sora breed, nest and hunt for food.

Topping the list of good things to eat include mollusks and insects, especially the aquatic larval forms of dragonfly, damsel fly and mosquito. Later in the summer the birds feast on grains of wild rice and the seeds of sedge, smartweed and various grasses.

Physically, both the Virginia rail and sora are well suited to life in the marsh. Small and plump with longish legs and slender non-webbed chicken-like toes, the minute-sized birds deftly navigate the tangled jungles of wetland habitats as effortlessly as a snake crawling through grass.

Both species have the ability to practically walk on water, utilizing floating vegetation and other debris for support as they go about their lives. In the case of soras, they also negotiate wetland vegetation by clinging 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 or Virginia rail, you might note their habits of peeking out from behind vegetative concealment prior to venturing momentarily out of cover. Or, if you're really fortunate, you might actually see one of them fly. Either species rarely takes to the air - they'd each rather remain hidden and escape danger by dashing through wetland thickets.

Despite the fact that Virginia rails and soras are somewhat misunderstood and mysterious to many of us, each bird is common, surprisingly graceful given their stature, and are without question delightful denizens of our Minnesota marshes. At just 10 inches in total length for the Virginia rail, and under nine inches for the sora, it's no wonder that these birds can go virtually unnoticed within their wetland haunts.

For sure, if not for their unique and astonishingly powerful voices, we might never know of the pleasurable and thankful existence of Virginia rails and soras as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at