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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Virginia rail and sora are delightful denizens of Minnesota’s marshes

These wetland dependent species of birds —the Virginia rail and sora — are more often heard than seen, though catching sight of them is not impossible.

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Inhabiting dense vegetation such as grasses and cattails typical of many wetlands, along with their diminutive length of just seven to eight inches, it's no wonder the Virginia rail is seldom viewed. But by listening closely and learning the songs and calls of the marsh, one can readily pick out their distinctive calls.
Courtesy / Rex Johnson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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My relationship with two birds that I’m very fond of first began in the summer of 1998, which was the beginning of my graduate research work studying bird diversity on various wetlands in North Dakota.

These wetland dependent species of birds —the Virginia rail and sora — are more often heard than seen, though catching sight of them is not impossible.

The unmistakable horse-like “whinnies” of soras, described as long, high-pitched descending whistles or loud whistled “kooEE, kooEE,” are usually all we get to “observe.”

Meanwhile, the “gik gik gik gidik gidik gidik gidik” call of the male Virginia rail, often occurring in the same wetland habitats as soras, are equally as secretive as soras.

Sora rails, contrary to folklore, do not spend the wintertime hibernating buried in wetland muck underneath the ice. 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.

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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.

The 10-inch-long Virginia rail, which is one of six species of rails (including the sora), resemble two of its larger North American relatives: the clapper rail and king rail.

Each of these three species is somewhat plump and long-billed little birds with stout legs that, when compared to lookalike avifauna such as various species of long-legged shorebirds, are short in comparison.

Sora rails, with their chicken-like beaks (their 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 breeds, nests and hunts 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.

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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 navigates 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 sight 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.

Even though Virginia rails and soras are somewhat misunderstood and mysterious to many of us, each bird is common, surprisingly graceful given their stature.

Without questions, these two species of rails are delightful denizens of Minnesota’s marshes as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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