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A small, secretive wetland bird found throughout North America. It is a member of the rail family and is known for its distinctive whinnying call.

The most common rail across much of North America, the Sora is migratory over most of its range. It is thought to be a nocturnal migrant, and during the fall its sensitivity to cold may provide the impetus for migrations. During the breeding season, Soras are territorial, though their nests may be only a few yards apart.

Sora nests are built by the female with materials delivered by the male. Sometimes enough additional nest material is added to raise the nest and keep it safe from flooding. Soras sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other rails, and vice versa.

Description of the Sora


The Sora is a medium size rail with gray underparts, white-striped flanks and upperparts, black between eye and bill, and a short, yellow bill.


Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Nonbreeding birds have less black in the face.


Juveniles have a buffy breast and a dark bill.


Virginia Rails inhabit both fresh and saltwater marshes, the latter mostly in winter.  Cattail marshes are particularly favored.


Soras primarily eat seeds, but also insects and snails.


Soras glean from the surface of the ground, but occasionally probe in mud for food.


Soras breed across most of the U.S. except for the southeast and south central regions, and winter along the Gulf Coast states and Pacific Coast, as well as south of the U.S.  The population is poorly measured, but may have declined in recent decades.

Fun Facts

The Sora’s fluttery flight belies the long migrations made by the species each year.

The Sora’s small nest and relatively large number of eggs means that eggs are often stacked in two layers within the nest


The typical call is long whinny, losing pitch and slowing near the end.

Similar Species


The Sora’s nest is a cup of cattails and grass placed just above the water, sometimes with a ramp of vegetation leading up to it.

Number: Usually lay 10-12 eggs.
Color: Buff with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 18-20 days and leave the nest soon after hatching, but cannot fly for about 3 weeks.  Not all eggs hatch at the same time, so one adult cares for the young while the other continues incubation.

Bent Life History of the Sora

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Sora – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


The sora or Carolina rail is unquestionably the rail of North America. It is the most widely distributed and the best known of its tribe. Throughout its wide breeding range its cries are among the most characteristic voices of the marshes. During some part of the year it is more or less common in practically every Province in Canada, every State in the United States, and in much of Central America and the West Indies. It is the most popular of the rails among sportsman and, when one speaks of rail shooting, he generally refers to this species. Being a prolific breeder, it is astonishingly abundant in favored localities during the fall migration.

The sora like the other rails, is a denizen of the oozy marsh; and for this reason it has continued to live and breed in the midst of civilization long after so many of the wilder and shyer birds have been driven away. Man clears away the forests, cultivates the prairies, cleans up the bushy hillsides and mows the meadow hay, forcing the birds that live there to move elsewhere; but he dislikes the quaking bog, which is perhaps too low to drain, and so he leaves it until the last, when the land becomes valuable enough to fill in for houselots. Many such little swamps and bogs, which had long persisted near the heart of some big city, have been filled in within my memory. And the rails, Virginia and sora, have stuck to them to the last; so well hidden were they in the seclusion of the marsh, that they little cared for the activities of civilization so close around them; the marsh was their world and supplied all their needs.

In my college days, in the late eighties, such a bog still existed near the center of Brookline, where a friend and I used to wade around in the mud up to our waists, collecting rails eggs; then, dripping with mud and water, we would return to his house, jump into the bath tub with our clothes on and wash off the mud, much to his mother’s disgust. In those days the Fresh Pond marshes in Cambridge were an oasis of wilderness in a desert of civilization and both the Virginia and sora rails nested there in abundance. Both of these marshes were filled in and obliterated by human “improvements.”

As late as 1908, Mr. J. A. Weber (1909) found both Virginia and sora rails nesting on the northern portion of the Manhattan Island in New York City. He writes:

The marshes inhabited by the rails are situated at the northern portion of Manhattan Island and extend northward and eastward from the foot of the hill at Fort George (One hundred and ninetieth Street and Amsterdam Avenue). These marshes formerly lined the shore of the Harlem River, but through street. improvements have been separated from the river and cut up into small areas

The water in these marshes no longer rises and falls with the tide and the only connection with the river is through drain pipes under the streets; consequently the water is more or less fresh.

I discovered another nest of the Virginia rail on June 6, 1908, in a 8mall marsh bordering on Dyckman Street, with two baseball fields adjoining it on the east and south. The nest was placed within 20 feet of the street where hundreds of people as well as vehicles pass daily and large crowds often assemble to witness the speedway trotting races or the baseball games. Yet the little mother rail quietly sat on her 10 eggs, apparently unconcerned about the civilization around her. Within an hour after finding the above nest, I discovered a nest of the sora (Porzcaa carolina), containing 14 eggs. The marsh in which this nest was built is situated on the south side of Two hundred and seventh Street between the foot of the new bridge across the Harlem River at this point and the Two’ hundred and seventh Street subway station. The marsh is so close to the subway station that some of the passengers noticed and watched me from the station platform while I was floundering about among the rushes. Yet strangely enough the noise of the numerous passing trains did not deter these shy birds from nesting in such close proximity.

Spring: Audubon (1840) throws some light on the spring migration of the sora rail, which he describes in some detail, as follows:

This bird, which I think might have been named the Pennsylvanian or Virginian rail, enters the Union from the shores of Mexico, early in March, when many are to be seen in the markets of New Orleans. Some reach their northern destination by ascending along the margins of our western streams, or by crossing the country directly, in the manner of the woodcock; while those which proceed along the coast shorten their journey as much as possible by flying across the headlands of the numerous inlets or bays of our southern districts, retiring or advancing more slowly according to the state of the weather. Thus, those which cross the peninsula of Florida, through the marshes and lagoons that lead to the headwaters of the St. Johns River, instead of traveling around the shores of Georgia and South Carolina, fly directly across toward Cape Lookout. it is nevertheless true, that a certain number of these birds follow the sinuosities of the shores, for I found some in the markets of Charleston, in the month of April, that had been killed in the immediate neighborhood of that city, and I obtained others in various parts; but the number of these is very small compared with that of those which cross at once. When their passage takes place, either during calm weather or with a favorable wind, the fortunate travelers pursue their journey by entering Pimlico Sound, and following the inner margins of the outward banks of this part of the coast until they reach Cape Henry. From thence some ascend the Chesapeake, while others make for the mouth of the Delaware, and these perhaps again meet on the borders of Lake Ontario, or the waters of the St. Lawrence, after which they soon enter those portions of the country in which they breed, and spend a short but agreeable season.

Nesting: The nests that we used to find in the Fresh Pond marshes, and in other places in Massachusetts, were usually well hidden in the dense growth of cat-tail flags (Typha latifolia) where the water and mud was quite deep, were generally well-made baskets of dead flags built up a few inches above the water and supported by the surrounding and growing flags. A nest found on Martha’s Vineyard on May 27,1900, illustrates a more open type of nesting. It was near the edge of a marshy island in a muddy pond, much overgrown with cat-tail flags. We had to push our boat a long way into the low, dead flags to find water shallow enough to wade in, but did not discover the nest until we returned later and happened to see it within a foot of the boat. The nest contained 12 handsome eggs and was placed in a little hummock among low, open, dead flags, where the water was about knee-deep; it was built of dead flags, arranged in a solid mass and dry on top; it was raised about 4 inches above the water, and measured about 6 inches in diameter; the inner cavity was about 3 inches wide by 2 inches deep. It was a typical cattail nest in which some of the eggs were arranged in a second layer, as they almost always are in a large set, so that the small body of the bird can cover them all.

In the prairie regions of North Dakota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan we found numerous nests of both Virginia and sora rails, around the borders of the sloughs or in wet, grassy meadows. The nests of the sora were generally in deeper water and were more substantially built than those of the Virginia rail. They were sometimes found in meadows where the grass was not very tall, but more often they were better concealed in clumps of buirushes (Scirpus lacustris) or flags. The nests were built up from 3 to 6 inches above the water and were made of dead flags, bulrushes and dry grasses.

A nest found by F. Seymour Hersey near Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, on July 2,1913, was placed in a clump of grass in a grassy marsh; it was made entirely of green grass, with which the center of the clump was entirely filled, and the rim of the nest was 10 inches above the wet ground; it appeared to have been built upon the remains of an old nest. The nest of the sora is usually more or less concealed by a canopy of grass, reeds, or flags arched over it, especially if it is in an open situation, and there is often a runway, made of the nesting material, leading up to it.

Eggs: The sora rail lays from 6 to 18 eggs, the extremes being very unusual and the average numbers running from 10 to 12. The shape is ovate and the shell is smooth and glossy. The eggs are more richly colored, more heavily spotted and more glossy than those of the Virginia rail, with which this species is often associated. The ground color is a rich buff, varying from “chamois” or “cinnamon buff” to “cream buff,” “ivory yellow,” or even “pale olive buff.” They are irregularly spotted with browns and drabs, “auburn,” “chestnut brown,” “russet,” “snuff brown” and shades of ” cinnamon-drab” and “ecru drab.” The measurements of 96 eggs average 81.5 by 22.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 34.5 by 23.5, 31 by 24.5, 28 by 22, and 30 by 20.5 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be 14 days; it is shared by both sexes and is nel~rly continuous from the time that the first few eggs are laid, as is shown by the protracted period of hatching; nests often contain young birds just hatched, others hatching, and eggs in various stages of development. The birds stick to their nests very closely and hatch the eggs even when they are partially submerged. it is inconceivable how so small a bird can successfully cover and hatch such large numbers of eggs, even when they are arranged in two layers, as is generally the case; but it is accomplished somehow, probably by frequently shifting the eggs and by close sit: tmg. One seldom sees a rail leave its nest, but always finds warm eggs; the bird slips quietly off and disappears.

The young rails are very precocious. They leave the nest soon after they are hatched, or immediately if necessary. W. Leon Dawson (1903) says:

I once came upon a nestful in a secluded spot at the critical time. Hearing my distant footsteps most of the brood had taken to their new-round heels, leaving two luckless wights in ovo. At my approach one more prison door flew open. The absurd fluff ball rolled out, shook itself, grasped the situation, promptly tumbled over the side of the nest, and started to swim across a 6-foot pool to safety.

Dr. Morris Gibbs (1899) writes:

It is but natural to suppose that the male Carolina rail assists in the care of the young as the mother sets and brings the little fellow out slowly; and this is found to be true, as I have seen the black animated fluffy bunches of down pattering after the old man. The young leave the nest about as soon as they are hatched and run among the grass and rushes. A large number of them must become prey for their enemies in the mar8h, for notwithstanding the large Bets of eggs laid by all of the members of this family, none of them appear to increase to any extent.

Edward H. Forbush (1914) observes:

The young of this bird have often been mistaken for those of the little black rail. They are certainly both small and sable. When they once leave the nest, they are constantly in danger. Most of the larger animals and birds of the marshes, from the sandhill crane down to the mink, devour the eggs and young of rails wherever they find them. In the water, snakes, frogs, fish, and turtles lie constantly in wait to swallow them. They soon become experts in climbing and hiding. They can clamber up and down the water-plants, or run through them over the water by clinging to the upright stems. They swim more like a chicken than like a duck, nodding their little heads comically as they advance. Necessity soon teaches them to drop into the water and dive like a stone to safety.

In some notes sent to me by Miss Althea R. Sherman she mentions seeing a brood of your~g soras in which the birds were of different ages; “one was still covered with black down, one was quite well feathered, and one midway between them,” indicating that they were hatched at different dates. She says that they “ran about in a lively fashion and fed like the adults from seeds and insects picked from the surface of the water.”

Plumages: T he downy young sora is completely covered with thick, glossy, black down, except on the chin, which is ornamented by a small tuft of stiff, curly hairs of a “deep chrome” color. The natal down is replaced, during July and August, by the juvenal plumage, in which the sexes are alike. In this the upper parts are much like the adults, but the browns are paler, more olive, there is less black, and there are fewer white spots and edgings; there is no black on the head, except a central black stripe on the crown and forehead; the throat is dull white; the breast and under parts are pale grayish and buffy; and the flanks are barred with brownish black and buffy white, instead of clear black and white, as in the adult. A nearly complete molt of the contour plumage, in varying amounts in different individuals and at various times between August and December, produces the first winter plumage, in which the sexes begin to differentiate. I have seen this molt in progress as early as August 20 and as late as December 24. In this plumage a few black feathers or restricted black areas are acquired on throat and face, with varying amounts of slate gray on head and breast. Some birds become much like adults, while others remain in a decidedly juvenal plumage all winter, and even through March. IJsually a first prenuptial molt of the contour plumage produces, in March or even earlier, a nuptial plumage which is nearly adult. A complete molt, between July and September, makes the young bird indistinguishable from the adult.

Adults have an incomplete prenuptial molt, involving only the contour plumage, between January and March, and a complete postnuptial molt of all the plumage in summer, between July and September. The two seasonal plumages are alike, except that in spring the black stripe down the throat is broader and unbroken. The female is much like the male, but the black in the head is duller and more restricted; the mantle is usually more spotted with white; and all the colors are less intense.

Food: Referring to the food of this species Doctor Gibbs (1899) writes:

The ortolan or sora rail feeds largely upon the small mollusks of the marsh. and at times many of these minute shells may be found in the crops of the birds. Neuropterous insects, those belonging to the order in which the dragon fly is embraced, form a good share of their food. These insects are aquatic, like the mosquito, in their earlier forms of development. This rail, like the others, also feeds to a limited extent on vegetable substances, and especially on a particular kind of seed in late summer, which I have been unable to identify. One authority, Cook, in his “Birds of Michigan,” gives reptiles as the food of the rails. This is undoubtedly incorrect, as I have yet to learn of reliable instances where rails feed on reptiles, and my readers may readily see that the make-up of these birds does not admit of their tearing snakes, frogs, and turtles to pieces. The nearest that these marsh birds come to feeding on reptiles is when an occasional small tadpole is gobbled up. A captive Tail of this species, which I once owned, fed greedily on hashed meat and earthworms. The bird came readily at my approach and after three days in confinement exhibited no signs of fear, and quickly learned to feed from my hand.

The foregoing remarks refer to the food of these rails on their breeding grounds or during the spring and early summer. Later in the summer and early in the fall, when the seeds of various aquatic plants are ripening, their food is more largely vegetable. They are especially fond of the seeds of wild rice (Zizania) which grows profusely along the banks of sluggish streams and in fresh-water marshes. In these wild-rice marshes they congregate in enormous numbers in August and September, in company with bobolinks, and feast on the seeds of these and other plants until they become very fat. Both rails and reed birds are then easy marks for the embryo sportsmen and tempting morsels for the table. Probably most of the seeds are gleaned from the surface of the water or mud, where they have fallen, but, as the rails are good climbers, they undoubtedly pick some from the stalks above.

Behavior: When flushed in a marsh the sora usually rises from almost underfoot, flutters feebly along just over the tops of the reeds for 40 or 50 yards, with a slow and apparently labored flight and with feet awkwardly dangling, and then, with uplifted wings, suddenly drops down out of sight again. Perhaps it can be flushed again but it is more likely to escape by running. When making a long flight across a river or pond, its flight is much stronger; its neck and legs are extended and its wings are making strong steady strokes. Audubon (1840) says:

The flight of this little bird while migrating is low, and performed with a constant beating of the wings, as in the coot and other birds of its kind. They pass swiftly along in compact flocks of from 5 to 100 or more individuals. At times you sec them rise in a long curve, as if they had perceived some dangerous object beneath them; then resume their ordinary direct flight and are soon out of sight.

However weak this rail may appear on the wing, its appearance when seen on foot is one of strength and activity. Owing to its shy and retiring habits, it i5 seldom seen, but, if the observer lies concealed near some open place in the bog, he may catch a glimpse of it as it comes out to feed, stepping daintily over the bog, flirting its short tail up and down or spreading it out in display, and nodding its head back and forth with a graceful dovelike motion. Its toes are so long and its body is so light, that it is easily supported on the lily pads or on a few floating reeds. It takes long steps when walking, but when running its tracks may be a foot apart. If alarmed by a sudden movement or sound, it runs to cover with lowered head and outstretched neck and with wings and plumage closely pressed against the narrowed body, as it slips out of sight in the narrow aisles between the reeds. Robert J. Sim (1911), who kept a sora rail in captivity until it became quite tame, says:

A rail which is quite at ease is very different in appearance from one that is frightened or at all nervous. Most birds of this kind to be seen in taxiderinal collections look as if they had been “scared stiff “: a state of things which is, perhaps, consistent enough. But a live, comfortable rail going about his own business is as graceful a bird as you could find, and plump like a guinea hen or a Hubbard squash. The tail is carried in a horizontal position or droops slightly. On the other hand, when filled with apprehension the bird is very slim, the head is lowered and extended, and the tail is cocked up or is twitched up at every step.

The sora, like other rails, can swim well or even dive, if necessary. It often swims across narrow strips of water, rather than fly. C. J. Maynard (1896) writes:

All the rails swim and dive well but I think the Carolinas rather excel them all in this respect, for they will not only take readily to the water, but will pass beneath it with great facility, and I once saw one run nimbly along the bottom of a brook, the water of which was about a foot deep, by clinging to aquatic plants, and crossing it obliquely, emerged on the other side, thus passing over some 15 feet while submerged.

William Brewster (1902) has described the various notes of this rail remarkably well, as follows:

In the more open, grassy stretches of meadow, as well as among the beds of cat-tail flags but seldom, if ever, in thickets of bushes, we also hear, after the middle of April, mingling with the notes of Virginia rails and the din of countless frogs, the love song of the Carolina rail, a sweet, plaintive “er-e” given with a rising inflection and suggesting one of the “scatter calls” of the quail. Such, at least, is its general effect at distances of from 50 to 200 or 300 yards, but very near at hand it developes a somewhat harsh or strident quality and sounds more like “ka-e,” while at the extreme limits of ear range one of the syllables is lost and the other might be easily mistaken for the peep of a Pickering’s hyla. This note, repeated at short, regular intervals, many times in succession, is one of the most frequent as well as pleasing voices of the marsh in the early morning and just after sunset. It is also given intermittently at all hours of the day, especially in cloudy weather, while it is often continued, practically without cessation through the entire night.

Equally characteristic of this season and even more attractive in quality is what, has been termed the “whinny” of the Carolina rail. It consists of a dozen or 15 short whistles as sweet and clear in tone as a silver bell. The first 8 or 10 are uttered very rapidly in an evenly descending scale, the remaining ones more deliberately and in a uniform key, The whole series is often followed by a varying number of harsher, more drawling notes given at rather wide intervals. Although it is probable that the “whinny” is made by both sexes I have actually traced it only to the female. She uses it, apparently, chiefly as a call to her mate, but I have also repeatedly heard her give it just after I had left the immediate neighborhood of her nest, seemingly as an expression of triumph or rejoicing at the discovery that her eggs had not been molested. When especially anxious for their safety and circling close about the human intruder she often utters a low whining murmur closely resembling that which the muskrat makes while pursuing his mate and sometimes a “cut-cut-cutta” not unlike the song of the Virginia rail, but decidedly less loud and vibrant. In addition to all these notes both sexes have a variety of short, sharp cries which they give when startled by any sudden noise.

Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) gives it as “queep-eep-i p-ip-i p-i p-i p-ip,or quaite, peep, peep, kuk, kuk, kuk: the first two or three syllables in long-drawn, coaxing tones, and the remaining syllables shorter and more hurried.” I have seen this rail utter a plaintive note, which sounded like ” peet-it-wheet,” or a sharper call note, like “peek or puck.” Both soras and Virginia rails often breed in the same marsh and in close proximity, but Miss Sherman’s notes indicate that they are not always as friendly as they might be. In a marsh where both species were under daily observation, she saw the soras drive the Virginias before them and frequently, but not always. the latter fled upon the approach of the former.

Fall: During the late summer and early fall, when the seeds of the wild rice, wild oats, and otber aquatic plants are ripening and falling, the soras, greatly increased in numbers with their large broods of young, desert their breeding grounds and gather in great multitudes in the more open marshes on the rice-covered borders of the lakes and streams, where they feast and fatten on their favorite food. At such times a sudden noise, such as the report of a gun or the splash of a paddle or a stone thrown into the grass, will start a chorus of cries ringing from one end of the marsh to the other. In such places they remain until driven farther south by the first frosts. They are very sensitive to cold and are good weather prophets. After a frosty night, in laLe September or early October, a marsh, which was teeming with rails the day before, may be found entirely deserted, every bird having (leparted during the night. They have started on their autumn wanderings, their fall migration.

Mr. Forbush (1914) says:

The little wings which erstwhile would hardly raise the birds above the grass tops now carry them high and far. Some cross the seas to distant Bermuda, and they occasionally alight on vessels hundreds of miles at sea. They have been taken on the western mountains even as high as 12,500 feet, in the sagebrush of the desert, and on the cliffs of Panama.

This really remarkable migration is thus described by Prof. W. W. Cooke (1914):

The flight of the sora is slow and labored but some individuals travel more miles between the summer and winter homes than almost any other rails in the Western Hemisphere. The birds breeding in the Mackenzie Valley do not winter farther north than the Gulf coast and hence must travel at least 2,500 miles during their fall migration. The species passes in winter to about latitude 50 S., and as imone of these South American birds nest south of latitude 350 N. the migration route can not possibly be shorter than 3,000 miles and may he much longer.

The autumnal flight to Bermuda is even more remarkable. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) write: “Its movements and the irregular character of its visits to Bermuda are interesting features in its history. Maj. J. W. Wedderburn 2 states that it regularly visits Bermuda, arriving early in September. The first specimen, obtained September 3, 1847, was settling on a branch of a mangrovetree: a very unusual action for this species, as it very rarely alights on a limb, and this one was 4 feet from the ground. A few remained throughout the winter. In October, 1849, it arrived in immense numbers, and one was killed January 17, and another April 26. J. L. Hurdis, in some supplementary notes [p. 82] added to Major Wedderburn’s paper, states that however heavy and sluggish this bird may appear when disturbed in its marshy retreat, there can be no doubt that it possesses great strength of wing, and the fact that it never fails to visit Bermuda in its great southern migrations is sufficient proof of its powers of flight. A single instance was noted of its being met with as early as August 24. In September it had become rather numerous, but was more abundant in October than at any other time. In some seasons these birds all disappeared about the end of October, while in others a few remained to the 25th of November, and some even beyond that time. In 1849 and the three following years this bird visited Bermuda in its spring migrations, appearing in the latter part of February, and remaining through the months of March and April. Ten specimens were shot and three taken alive. During a southwest gale which prevailed on the 9th of October, 1849, thousands of this bird suddenly appeared in the marshes of Bermuda, and on the 29th of the same month not one of this species was to be seen. The whole immense flight had departed on some unexplained journey. This departure could not have been occasioned by any want of food, for the marshes were abundantly supplied, and the prevailing temperature was between 700 and 800 Fahrenheit. Mr. Hurdis states that this bird is also found in its migrations in the Island of Barbados, and thinks that there is little cause to doubt that the rivers and marshes of South America are its southern haunts during the winter months. It is very fat when it arrives in the Bermudas: evidently a provision of nature to sustain it in its long and arduous flight from one region to some distant point, as it probably traverses the Atlantic Ocean for 30 or 35 degrees of latitude without food.” Game: The sora, or Carolina rail, has always been a popular game bird. It is exceedingly abundant at times in certain places; its flight is so slow and steady that it is easily killed; and when fattened on the succulent grains of the marshes its flesh is excellent food. But, to my mind, it is too small, too tame, and too easily killed to afford really good sport, in which the bird should have a sporting chance for its life. My experience with rail shooting has been limited to one day on the marshes of Essex, Connecticut, as the guest of Dr. L. C. Sanford. It was the opening day of the season and we each shot the legal limit, 35 birds, in a very short time~ His description of it is so much better than anything I can write, that I prefer to quote from Doctor Sanford (1903), as follows:

When the wild oats along, the tidal rivers of our coast begin to turn yellow with. the first touch of fall, the time for rail has come, and the high tides of September give the sportsman his first chance. The Connecticut River, where it broadens into the Sound, is one of the favorite haunts of these birds. Here Essex is the usual destination. Some 3 miles up the river from Say brook, the little town ‘f Essex, with its one hotel and old-fashioned houses, looks now pretty much as it did a hundred years ago. Rail tides generally come toward the middle of the day, and the pusher is waiting for you at the landing; you stand for a minute looking up and down the broad expanse of river. Everywhere along the shore are wavy patches of high grass reaching far out into the water. These are the wild oats, and here live the rail. A strong tide is running in, and you step into a flat-bottomed skiff, which is rigged with a high stool firmly tied to the front seat. The only task now is to sit still on this stool and be shoved. A short row up the river and you are in the midst of thick wild oats, so high it is difficult in many places to see over the tops, even from your exalted position. A flutter just ahead, and a rail rises, shot almost before it cleared the grass; a few feathers alone are left to tell the fate of the first bird of the season. The next is given a chance to get in range, and the score is two; three or four more straight exalt a man’s idea of his shooting ability: without reason, though, for no easier mark ever flew in front of a gun. Now a rail runs among some broken grass ahead of the boat, and a whack from the pusher’s pole starts him; at the shot half a dozen teal jump within range, and the last one is feathered but not stopped. Presently several rail start in quick succession; you fire, and load, and fire again: not a miss yet, but all idea of definite direction is lost and the last bird is the only one marked. Here a clever pusher shows his skill, and after you have given up all thought of retrieving he picks them up in order. Under these circumstances painted blocks can be used and tossed out to mark the dead birds before the position of the boat is changed. The time of high tide is short, but sufficient; every few seconds a bird rises, its slow flight affording a sure mark; generally in front or to the side, occasionally behind, when you are startled by the pusher’s yell “Hi, rail!” in time to try a long shot. Sometimes a larger bird, of the same general appearance and similar flight, starts up. This is a clapper rail, known by many of our gunners. as marsh hen. About Essex they are rare. Sometimes, too, a mud hen flops out over the tops. In some instances mud hens are quite common on the rail grounds. The Florida gallinule is also a straggler here. Rail keep fluttering from the grass, less often now, though, than an hour ago, but you have some time since reached the limit: as well, for a falling tide makes the pushing hard and the birds refuse to rise. Most of the birds are soras; occasionally the longer bill and darker coloring mark a Virginia rail. An occasional chattering note tells of the presence of a rail, secure in the high grass, until the next high tide. A lone bittern wings his way to some safer spot, and this is our last glimpse of the marsh.

Before there were any bag limits on rails, much larger numbers were killed; as many as 195 rails have been killed by one man on a single tide, which usually includes about two hours before and two hours after high tide. Edward H. Forbush (1912) writes:

Doctor Lewis gives a record of the bags of Sora rails killed by a few men on the Delaware River, below Philadelphia, in 1846. The 34 records of consecutive days show an average of about 100 rails per man per day. He states that over 1,000 rails were brought into Chester in one day. Doctor Brewer (1884) says that it is not uncommon for an expert marksman to kill from 100 to 150 rails per day, and such scores were made on the Connecticut River in Connecticut in olden times, when there was no legal limit to the bag. This slaughter has made some inroads on the number of the birds in Massachusetts. Robert 0. Morris writes that it is said that about 1,000 were killed at Longmeadow near Springfield, in 1908.

Range: North America, Central America, the West Indies, and northwestern South America. Accidental in Great Britain.

Breeding range: North to British Columbia (southern Cariboo district and Vanderhoof); Mackenzie (Fort Simpson, Fort Rae, and Fort Resolution); Manitoba (Chemawawin, Fort Churchill, and York Factory); Ontario (Severn house, Moose Factory [probablyj and Bracebridge); Quebec (Montreal, Quebec, and Godbout); and Prince Edward Island. East to Prince Edward Island; New Brunswick (Grand Manan): Maine (Pittsfield and Norway); New Hampshire (Monadnock); Massachusetts (Boston and Ponkapog); Connecticut (Norwich and Westville); New York (Shelter Island); New Jersey (Princeton); and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). South to Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Carlisle, and Dubois); Ohio (Salem and Lewiston Reservoir); Indiana (Bluffton); Illinois (Springfield); Missouri (Independence); Kansas (Osawatomie); Colorado (Barr, Denver, Blue River, and Lay); probably Arizona (Mormon Lake); Utah (Provo); Idaho (Rupert); Nevada (Quinn River and probably Pyramid Lake); and California (San Bernardino and Escondido). West to California (Los Angeles and Eureka); Oregon (Elamath Lake and Portland); Washington (Tacoma and Seattle); and British Columbia (Chilliwack, Ashcroft, and Cariboo District).

Winter range: North to California (Gilroy and Marysville); Arizona (Pecks Lake in the upper Verde Valley); Texas (Corpus Christi); Louisiana (Hester and Dimond); Mississippi (Biloxi and Bay St. Louis); Florida (Royal Palm Hammock, Whitfield, and Amelia Island); and Bermuda. East to Bermuda; Florida (Amelia Island and Titusville); Bahama Islands (Little Abaco, New Providence, Watlings Island, and Great Inagna Island); Porto Rico; St. Croix; Dominica Island; Santa Lucia Island; Grenada Island; Tobago Isand and Trinidad. South to Trinidad; Venezuela (Caracas and Lake Valencia); Colombia (Medellin); and Peru (Sarayacu and Tumbez). West to Peru (Tumbez and Sarayacu); Ecuador (Quito); Guatemala (Lake of Duenas and Lake Atitlan); Jalisco (La Barca); Sinaloa (Escuinapa and Mazatlan); Lower California (San Jose del Cabo, La Paz, and Colnett.); and California (Escondido, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Gilroy, and Marvsville).

The sora also has occurred in winter at more northern latitudes; Montana (Corvallis, March .30 and 31, 1910); Minnesota (Lanesboro, November 30, 1893 to January 25, 1894); Illinois (Rantoul); Pennsylvania (Kresgeville); New York (Rochester and Flushing): Connecticut (Hartford); and Massachusetts (Salem).

Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Alabama, Greensboro, March 11, 1893; Georgia, Savannah, February 21, 1912, Cumberland, March 7, 1902, and Darien, March 24, 1890; South Carolina, Mount Pleasant, March 4, 1895, and Columbia, April 9, 1909; North Carolina, Raleigh, April 8,1886, and Weaverville, April 30,1894; Pennsylvania, Coatesville, March 30, 1888, and Swarthmore, March 30, 1914; New York, Buffalo, March 5,1900, Ithaca, April 14, 1908, Branchport, April 17, 1914, Lockport, April 22, 1890, and Can.andaigua, April 27, 1905; Connecticut, Hadlyme, April 2,1910, Middleton, April 5,1914, Northford, April 11, 1894, and East hartford, April 18, 1888; Rhode Island, Quonochontang, March 2,1900; Masuachusetts, Lynn, April 19, 1911, and Cambridge, April 23, 1897; Maine, Pittsfield, May 4, 1899, Quebec, May 27, 1892; Kentucky, Bowling Green, April 5,1902; Missouri, Jonesburg, March 31, 1917, Kansas City, April 17, 1902, Monteer, April 20, 1909, St. Louis, April 22, 1909, and Independence, April 30, 1903; Illinois, Milford, March 30, 1909, Chicago, April 1,1894, Lebanon, April 4,1876, Carthage, April 7,1882, Alton, April 10, 1894, Carlinville, April 11, 1890, Rockford, April 12,1893, and Glen Ellyn, April 14, 1899; Indiana, Frankford, March 6,1895, Middletown, March 23, 1907, Waterloo, March 30, 1907, Bloomington, April 3, 1893, Terre Haute, April 8, 1890, Lyons, April 9,1915, Worthington, April 14, 1907, and Indianapolis, April 16, 1916; Ohio, Sandusky, March 8,1910, Franklin County, April 2,1916, Cleveland, April 9, 1883, Oberlin, April 11, 1914, Canton, April 13, 1913, and Huron, April 14, 1913; Michigan, Ganges, April 5,1893, Vicksburg, April 11,1904, Ann Arbor, April 13, 1908, Greenville, April 16, 1896, Hillsdale, April 17, 1894, Albion, April 17, 1896, and Battle Creek, April 20, 1888; Ontario, Dunuville, April 20, 1885, Todmorden, April 23, 1891, Ottawa, April 23, 1908, London, April 26, 1915, and Winclsor, April 28, 1898; Iowa, Keokuk, April 1, 1893, Dubuque, April 3,1897, La Porte, April 16, 1884, Iowa City, April 18, 1916, and Sioux City, April 22,1916; Wisconsin, Milwaukee, March 30, 1911, Wauwatosa, April 11, 1889, Madison, April 18, 1904, Delavan, April 20, 1896, North Freedom, April 26, 1902, and Stevens Point, April 28, 1897; Minnesota, Minneapolis, April 11,1906, Heron Lake, April 13, 1894, Elk River, April 24, 1915, Hallock, April 27, 1897, and Redwing, April 29, 1907; Kansas, Emporia, April 11, 1885, Onaga, April 29, 1893, and Wichita, May 1,1917; Nebraska, Peru, May 5, 1889, and Badger, May 7, 1903; South Dakota, Brown County, April 17, 1891, Pitrodie, April 25, 1889, and western Lyman County, April 25, 1907; North Dakota, Antler, May 3, 1908, Cando, May 10, 1890, and Devil’s Lake, May 13, 1903; Manitoba, Aweme, April 30, 1902, Margaret, May 9,1910, and Reaburn, May 12, 1894; Saskatchewan, Indian Head, May 11, 1912; Mackenzie, Fort Simpson, May 19, 1904; Arizona, Tucson, April 2,1909; Colorado, Barr, May 2, 1917, Salida, May 8,1908, and Boulder, May 8,1910; Wyoming, Jackson, April 26, 1911; Idaho, Rathdrum, May11, 1902; Montana, Terry, May 9,1906; Alberta, Flagstaff, May 1,1915, Carvel, May 8,1915, and Onoway, May 14, 1912; Oregon, Fort Klamath, March 28, 1887; and British Columbia, Chilliwack, April 9,1889, and Okanagan Landing, April 26, 1906.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Saskatchewan, Indian Head, October 25, 1904; Montana, Terry, September 13, 1901, and Fallon, September 17, 1908; Idaho, Rupert, September 16, 1911; Wyoming, near Hatton, September 14, 1911; Colorado, Hillside Lake, Gunnison County, September 23, 1900, and Boulder, October 22, 1910; Manitoba, Reaburn, September 15, 1903, Aweme, October 5, 1914, and Margaret, October 20, 1912; North Dakota, Grafton, October 5, 1914, and Antler, October 12, 1908; South Dakota, Sioux Falls, October 17, 1909; Nebraska, Gresham, October 10, 1896, and Badger, October 11, 1899; Kansas, Osawatomie, October 9,1897, and Topeka, October 18, 1902; Minnesota, Minneapolis, September 24, 1906, Hallock, October 2, 1899, and Lanesboro, October 10, 1887; Wisconsin, Shiocton, October 9,1883, Madison, October 16, 1910, Delavan, October 22, 1896, Milwaukee, October 23, 1886, and North Freedom, November 2,1903; Iowa, Hilisboro, October 10, 1899, Indianola, October 18, 1902,and Keokuk, November 19, 1893; Ontario, Todmorden, October 12, 1891, Point Pelee, October 14, 1909, Toronto, October 29, 1898, and Ottawa, October 30, 1895; Michigan, Palmer, October 6,1894, Detroit, October 18, 1907, Neebish Island, November 9,1893, and Vicksburg, November 17, 1902; Ohio, October 1,1914, Waverly, October 2, 1897, South Webster, October 13, 1894, Cedar Point, October 17, 1909, Huron, October 19, 1912, and Oberlin, November 11, 1890; Indiana, Greensburg, October 1, 1894, and Brookville, October 14, 1890; Illinois, Chicago, October 5,1907, Morgan Park, October 13, 1894, Glen Ellyn, October 17, 1897, and Oak Point, October 17, 1914; Missouri, Kansas City, October 8,1902, and Monteer, October 14, 1908; Arkansas, Pinnacle Mountain 800 feet above Clinton, September 18, 1896; Quebec, Godbout, September 14, 1891, and Montreal, October 7, 1893; Maine, Pittsfield, October 9,1895, and Westbrook, October 26, 1904; Vermont, Bennington, November 11, 1904; Massachusetts, Monomoy Island, October 2, 1887, Harvard, October 19, 1907, and North Truro, October 20, 1889; Rhode Island, Black Island, November 22, 1912; Connecticut, Middletown, October 18, 1914, East Hartford, October 19, 1888, and Portland, November 5, 1894; New York, Branchport, October 1, 1905, Canandaigua, October 3,1905, Shelter Island, October 5,1893, Geneva, October 10, 1914, Sing Sing, October 16, 1885, Phoenix, October 17, 1885, and Ithaca, November 9,1907; New Jersey, Pennsville, October 23, 1914; Pennsylvania, Renovo, October 4, 1894,Berwyn, October 16,1909, and State College, October 25, 1916; Maryland, Patuxtent River, October 24, 1916; North Carolina, Raleigh, October 30, 1891; South Carolina, Charleston, October 26, 1911; Georgia, Kirkwood, October 14, 1899; Alabama, Coden, December 2, 1916.

The earliest arrivals in Porto Rico were noted on October 8, 1922, and the last to leave in the spring were observed on March 25, 1921.

Casual records: The sora also has been observed or taken at several points beyond its normal range. A specimen was found dead at State College, New Mexico, on August 27, 1912; another was found on the ice at the terminal moraine of Arapahoc Glacier, Colorado, at an altitude of 12,000 feet, in September, 1903; it has occurred in summer at Massett on the Queen Charlotte Islands, at Anticosti Island and St. Joachim, Quebec. It has been reported from Newfoundland and there are several records of occurrence in Greenland, Avigait, September30 (year?), Sukkertoppen, October 3,1823, and Umanak. It also has been detected in England, near Newbury, Berkshire, in October, 1866; Wales, Cardiff, in 1888; and in Scotland, Tiree Island, October 25, 1901.

Egg dates: Southern New England and New York: 50 records, May 7 to July 26; 25 records, May 24 to 30. Quebec: 8 records, May 29 to June 26. Michigan and Wisconsin: 27 records, May 16 to June 28; 14 records, May 26 to June 6. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta: 19 records, May 31 to July 23; 10 records, June 9 to 23. California, Utah, and Nevada: 11 records, April 23 to June 25; 6 records, May 23 to June 9.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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