Virginia Rail

Rallus limicola

(c) Shawn Carey
  • RALLIDAE
  • Coots, Rails
  • Gruiformes
  • Rascón Limícola; Rascón de Virginia
  • Râle de Virginie
Introduction
Although "thin as a rail" refers to the rail of a fence, it aptly describes the Virginia Rail, whose narrow body allows easy passage through the thick vegetation found in fresh and salt water wetlands. Like other rails, the Virginia Rail has large feet for walking over soggy ground, and claw-like appendages at the bend of wing for clambering. This rail prefers not to be seen and rarely vocalizes outside the breeding season.
Appearance Description
Virginia Rails grow to 9.5 inches, and weigh about 3 ounces, with a wingspan of 13 inches. Observers are more likely to hear the grunts, clicks, and whinnies of the Virginia Rail than to see its complex, bright plumage. This marsh bird looks vaguely like a long billed chicken. A brown cap and red, slightly decurved bill frame this rail's grey face. The bird's neck and belly are rusty brown and contrast with the black and white barring on its sides. The upper parts are heavily streaked with dark and reddish brown. The long legs and large feet are pink-toned.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The Virginia Rail breeds from the west coast of the United States throughout the upper Midwest and lower Canada, to the mid-Atlantic Coast, and north into the Canadian Maritimes. Wintering birds range along the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey, throughout most of Florida, and around the Gulf Coast through central Mexico. Virginia Rails also winter along the Pacific Coast, at scattered locations throughout the west, and from central Arizona southward.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
The Virginia Rail's Latin species name, "limicola," means "mud dweller." True to their name, Virginia Rails usually nest in muddy areas in shallow fresh water marshes with new growth. By contrast, wintering birds are often found in salt water marshes.
Feeding
Virginia Rails explore mud and shallow water with their long bills. They also pick items from various surfaces. Bugs, worms, snails, and flies comprise most of their diet in summer. Seeds are an important supplement in winter.
Reproduction

Virginia Rails form monogamous pairs on territories initially established by males with vigorous and sometimes violent defense. Pairs maintain their bonds with displays, songs, chases, and mutual preening and feeding. Both sexes build 1 to 5 basket nests on or just above the water in dense, emergent vegetation. The extra nests may serve for resting, preening, and brooding. The female lays 4 to 13 light  eggs, marked with a few brownish splotches. The parents incubate the eggs for about 18 days. The young are precocial; within an hour or two, they can walk, preen, and vocalize, but require brooding for up to a month. Chicks usually leave the nest within a week, when they can forage on their own. Both adults feed chicks for at least a month. In southern areas, Virginia Rails may produce a second clutch.

Migration

Despite their apparently weak flight, most Virginia Rails migrate considerable distances to arrive on the breeding grounds from mid-April to late May. From late August through October, fall migration varies, depending on weather and available food. Virginia Rails appear to migrate at night and fly low over rivers and bottom lands.

CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • Unknown
  • Unknown
  • No current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Virginia Rails are secretive and notoriously difficult to survey, so few numbers are encountered on monitoring routes, and the bird's precise status is not known. Strong increases in population numbers have been shown in both BBS and CBC data over the last 40 years, but these increases have not made up for 300 years of wetlands habitat loss. The Marsh Monitoring Program, supported by Canada and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, may offer an additional source of population trends data, but is currently limited to regional surveys.
 
An explanation of the Annual Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
Although widespread and fairly common in some locations, the Virginia Rail appears to have declined overall since the early 1900s, due in part to habitat destruction and pesticide use. Losses are most acute in the Midwest, where Indiana lists the Virginia Rail as endangered. Pennsylvania and Ohio recognize it as a "species of conservation concern."
 
Since this rail is considered a game bird by 31 states, more information is needed to assess the effects of hunting pressure, particularly when combined with habitat loss and pesticide impacts. Specific management practices have yet to be prescribed, but should include the preservation of emergent vegetation near shallow water, stricter regulation of pesticides and heavy metals, and uniform restrictions on hunting.
What You Can Do
Visit a local wetland to look and listen for the Virginia Rail in late spring and early summer.
 
Join local efforts to preserve wetlands. Important Bird Areas (IBAs) provide a good starting point.
 
Virginia Rails breed in small marshes with emergent vegetation. If you own such land, consider managing this precious resource for the benefit of wildlife like the Virginia Rail. A conservation easement, arranged by your local land trust, might be the best tool for your goal.
 
For additional actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
To learn more about IBAs and how you can help protect them in, visit Audubon's National IBA website.
 
To learn more about land preservation, visit the Land Trust Alliance.
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Conway, C. J. 1995. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola). In The Birds of North America, No. 173 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Ivey, G. L., and C. P. Herziger. 2006. Intermountain West Waterbird Conservation Plan, Version 2.1. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region, Portland, Oregon.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Conway, C. J. 1995. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola). In The Birds of North America, No. 173 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Ivey, G. L., and C. P. Herziger. 2006. Intermountain West Waterbird Conservation Plan, Version 2.1. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region, Portland, Oregon.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.