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Virginia Rail

Like most rails, the Virginia Rail is secretive and hard to see in the thick marshy cover it prefers. Its migration is thought to take place during the day and at a low altitude. Virginia Rails have much stronger leg muscles than flight muscles, and they rarely fly except when migrating.

Virginia Rails are territorial, although their nests are relatively close together, perhaps due to the scarcity of their wetland habitat. Several dummy nests may be built in addition to the actual nest used for egg laying. These are used for loafing or to escape flooding.

Description of the Virginia Rail


The Virginia Rail is a medium size rail with reddish underparts, striped upperparts, boldly barred black and white flanks, a gray face, and a long, reddish bill.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are largely blackish with a dark bill.


Virginia Rails inhabit both fresh and saltwater marshes.


Virginia Rails primarily eat insects, snails, and crayfish.

Virginia Rail


Virginia Rails probe in mud and shallow water for food.


Virginia Rails 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 is believed to be stable in recent decades.

Fun Facts

Virginia Rails have extra durable feather tips on their foreheads to better stand up to constantly pushing through marsh vegetation.

Virginia Rails are often found in similar habitat as Soras, which eat more seeds and therefore do not directly compete for food.


The typical call is an accelerating and descending series of grunts, though squeals are given as well.

Similar Species


The Virginia Rail’s nest is a platform of grasses, reeds, and cattails often formed into a canopy and placed in a clump of vegetation.

Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: White with faint markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 19 days and leave the nest within 3-4 days of hatching, but remain with the adults for about 1 month.

Bent Life History of the Virginia Rail

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 Virginia Rail – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Contributed by Charles Wendell Townsend

The Virginia rail, like most of its family, is rarely seen except by those who know its ways, and, even when heard, its strange noises are often attributed to frogs or other creatures. One who has seen only the usual short and feeble flights of this bird would receive with astonishment, if not with incredulity, the statement that some individuals migrate annually many hundreds of miles. Such, however, must be the case, for the Virginia rail winters but sparsely north of North Carolina and it breeds as far north as Quebec and even Manitoba.

Spring: Audubon (1840) describes the arrival of this bird as follows:

The males usually arrive at the breeding places a week or 10 days before the females. They travel silently and by night, as I have ascertained by observing them proceed singly and in a direct course, at a height of only a few feet, over our broad rivers, or over level land, when their speed is such as is never manifested by them under ordinary circumstances. Their movements can be easily traced for 50 yards or so during nights of brilliant moonshine, when you see them passing with a constant beat of the wings, in the manner of a green-winged teal.

This low flight in migration accounts for the fact that their dead bodies are sometimes found under telegraph lines or under wire fences.

Courtship: Audubon (1840) was fortunate in witnessing the com’tship dance of the Virginia rail, and thus describes it:

The notes of the rail came loudly on my ear, and on moving toward the spot whence they proceeded, I observed the bird exhibiting the full ardor of his passion. Now with open wings raised over its body, it ran around its beloved, opening and flirting its tail with singular speed. Each time it passed before her, it would pause for a moment, raise itself to the full stretch of its body and legs, and bow to her with all the grace of a well-bred suitor of our own species. The female also bowed in recognition, and at last, as the male came nearer and nearer in his circuits, yielded to his wishes, on which the pair flew off in the manner of house pigeons, sailing and balancing their bodies on open wings until out of sight. During this exhibition, the male emitted a mellow note, resembling the syllables “cuckoe, cuckoe,” to which the female responded with the kind of lisping sound uttered by young birds of the species when newly hatched.

The courtship song of the Virginia rail suggests at a distance the sounds made by striking an anvil with a hammer which rebounds. If the bird is near at hand the sound suggests the clicking of a telegraph instrument. The song has a peculiar vibrant, metallic quality and may be w~ritten down “kid-i ck, kid-ide, kid-ick,”or again “cut, cut, cut-aA, cut-aA.” It is sometimes repeated many times and may be heard at night as well as by day, for this bird, although largely diurnal in its habits, is often abroad during the night hours.

Nesting: The nest of the Virginia rail is cunningly concealed and is almost always built in a fresh-water marsh or near freshwater. Occasionally, however, it is found in the upper reaches of salt marshes that are sometimes ovefflowed by storm tides. Although it usually selects a dryer place in the marsh than the sora, yet it not infrequently builds its nest over water. One such nest I found in an extensive growth of cat-tails in water 6 inches deep on the edge of a pond. The nest was slung a foot from the water, was 8 inches in diameter and was composed of coarse grasses and cat-tails. Often, even in water, the nest rests on the mud and is composed of a great mass of grasses and reeds, forming sometimes a towerlike structure 7 or 8 inches high. J. A. Weber (1909) describes such a nest that was: in the center of a circular bunch of growing cat-tails. It consisted of a mass of cat-tail blades and stems, placed layer upon layer, the foundation resting on the mud, so that the rim of the nest was 7 inches above the surface of the water. The inside of the nest was rather shallow, 434 by 4~-~ inches in diameter, and lined with cat-tail blade chips 3~-~ to 2 inches in length.

F. S. Hersey in his notes describes a nest thr~t: was built up in a tussock of grass in a rather dry spot bordering a cat-tail marsh. One end of the nest was somewhat depressed: in fact, so much that the eggs rolled dangerously near the edge: and from the depressed side a narrow runway sloped down about 2 feet to the level of the ground.

P. L. Hatch (1892) noticed that when the first egg was laid there was only a slight depression in the nest and he thinks that this becomes deeper as egg laying and incubation progress. He supposes that the male continues to build up the structure around the female, in which work she assists, and he also thinks that the weights of her body helps to deepen the excavation.

Eggs: fAuthor’s note: The Virginia rail lays from 7 to 12 eggs; I have never heard of any larger sets. The eggs are easily distinguished from those of the sora rail, which often breeds in the same marshes, as they are lighter colored, less heavily marked, and less glossy. In shape they vary from ovate to elongate ovate. The shell is smooth with very little or no gloss. The ground color is pale buff, varying from “pinkish buff” to “cartridge buff” ornearlywhite. They are sparingly and irregularly spotted, often chiefly around the larger end, with “hazel,” “russet,” “cinnamon-brown” and “army brown”; some specimens have a few spots of light shades of “drabgray.” The measurements of 73 eggs average 32 by 24.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 35 by 24, 34 by 25.5, 29 by 22.5 millimeters.]

Young: The exact length of incubation has not been recorded, but it is known to be not less than 15 days. The young come out of the egg with their eyes open and are so active that they leave the nest even before the coal-black down in which they are clad is dry. The first chicks often leave the nest before the rest of the eggs are hatched. In a few days, at the latest, the nest is deserted, in all cases observed, although it is possible that when undisturbed by visitors, human or other, the young may remain in the nest a little longer. As the female begins incubation before all the eggs are laid, several days may elapse between the hatching of the first and the last egg. Bowdish (1891) says that the young are conducted away by one parent as fast as hatched, while the other parent continues to incubate.

From the beginning, the downy young are good swimmers and divers, and are well able to run over the ground and to climb about in the reeds and grasses, making use of their large feet and claws and of their little wings, each of which is provided with a tiny claw on the outer digit.

Verdi Burtch’s (1917) observations of the young and their parents are of much interest. He says:

On May 11, 1908, the eggs were just beginning to hatch in a nest that I had found some few days before, and, as I approached, the female slipped from the uest and away through the cat-tails. She was quickly followed by the two little ones, although they were but a few hours old. The nest was surrounded by water so that the birds had to swim, but even then they managed to elude me. Hoping to get a picture of the nest and eggs I set up my camera, and, while focusing, the mother appeared, carrying one of the llttle ones in her bill, dropped it into the nest, went on, and settled down to brood.

In another nest on: June 17 the eggs were beginning to hatch, and there were six silky little ones in the nest. Three of them followed the mother when she left the nest and hid in the llags around its base. The three others were not yet dry and with their bright eyes shining lay kicking and struggling to get out of the nest. Soon the mother came back calling softly “Ice-ka-ka-ka-ke,” and the young ones left their hiding place and ran to her. One of them fell into one of my foot tracks, and the mother came quickly and taking it up, ran off into the flags, carrying, it dangling from her bill as a cat carries her kittens. The male now showed himself for the first time.

On the next day all but one were hatched and that one appeared a few minutes later. Whereupon all left the nest and hid. When the mother appeared and called softly “kiu-kiu-kiu-lciu,” ending with a grunting noise, they all ran to her.

Late in July both parents and young will be found on the muddy shore where they feed and dodge back into the flags at the least sign of danger. At this time the young are about half grown and still keep their downy appearance. When feeding, the mother comes out on the mud, a young one following, and when she finds a choice morsel it is there to receive it. Back in the flags the other young are following, uttering plaintive peeps. As soon as one is fed it returns to the flags and another one comes out to take its place.

While the parent birds usually slip unseen from the nest before the young are hatched, they arc much holder when the chicks are about. J. A. Weber (1909) relates a case where the female, flushed from her nest, remained in the immediate vicinity: strutting about with her feathers puffed up and wings spread like a turkey cock, giving her a rather formidable appearance; at the same time she uttered a low grunting sound which I had never heard from a rail before and quite unlike their characteristic notes. The male showed his interest by his sharp “keck-Iceclckeck-keck” calls, evidently trying to lead me away from the nest.

Verdi Burtch (1917) was almost attacked by a female bird with wings drooping and feathers ruffled, and when he attempted to photograph her, she actually struck the lens of his camera with her bill.

J. H. Bowles (1893) relates a curious and unusual case where after the discovery of a Virginia rail’s nest with nine eggs, the bird was seen three minutes later to return to the nest and, standing among the eggs, to deliberately spear them with her long bill. The question has been raised whether this destruotive bird may not have been a rival and not the owner of the nest.

Plumages: [Author’s note: The downy young Virginia rail is completely covered with long, thick, rather coarse, black down, glossed bluish on the head and greenish on the back. It can be distinguished from the young sora by the much longer bill, which is yellowish at the base and tip and crossed by a broad black band in the middle; there are also no orange bristles on the chin.

The down is soon replaced by the juvenal plumage, early in July or earlier, as soon as the young bird is fully grown. In this the head, neck, and upper parts are mostly dull black, with brown edgings on the back; the under parts, particularly on the breast and flanks, are more or less dull black, in some mostly black, in others only mottled with black; the throat is white or grayish white; the central breast and belly are more or less mottled with white and sometimes, particularly in males, suffused with pinkish buff; the wings are much like those of the adult, but a little duller.

A partial and gradual molt of the contour plumage, beginning sometimes as early as the middle of August and usually completed in October or November, produces the first winter plumage which is practically adult, I have been unable to recognize young birds after this postjuvenal molt.

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt, in July and August, and probably a partial prenuptial molt in the spring. In fresh fall plumage adults are rather darker and more richly colored than in spring.} Food: With its long curved bill the Virginia rail probes the mud and extracts many a fat earth worm and the larvae of insects. It also eats slugs and snails, small fish, caterpillars, beetles, and other insects, and it is said to eat occasionally the seeds of grasses.

Alvin R. Cahn (1915) tried some interesting feeding experiments on a Virginia rail that was captured when exhausted by an early snowstorm in October in Madison, Wisconsin. The bird recovered and became remarkably tame and developed an insatiable appetite, but at the same time, showed great discrimination in its feeding habits. These were strictly carnivorous. It refused to swallow rice or corn or bread. Even finely chopped liver was refused. Sunfish, sticklebacks, bullheads, and crayfish when captured by this bird were at once removed from the water of its tank and taken as far from it as the limits of its cage would permit before they were eaten, a proceeding evidently intended to eliminate the possibility of their escape. Crayfish were pecked and shaken until all their legs fell off and the creature rendered helpless before they were eaten. The legs were afterwards sought out and swallowed. Amphipods and other small aquatic forms were captured with great skill and eaten on the spot. Caterpillars were taken to the water and their bristles softened and broken before they were eaten, while frogs were pounded into insensibility in the water. Small snakes were eaten with avidity. The largest snake given this bird was a garter snake 12 inches long. It was attacked at once with vigorous thrusts of the bill, and, after half an hour’s efforts, the bird began to swallow it head first. The snake, however, soon looped its body about the bird and was hastily unswallowed. Renewed thrusts with the bill and further unsuccessful swallowing trials ensued and not until the end of two strenuous hours was the reptile finally disposed of. After an hour’s sleep, the rail was ready for new worlds to conquer.

Behavior: It sometimes happens that in walking through a marsh one almost steps on a Virginia rail that springs into the air and, with dangling legs, flies on feeble wings for 5 or 10 yards and drops, apparently exhausted, to the grass. If one runs at once to the spot, the bird seems to have vanished: it can not be flushed again. It has run swiftly through the grass, its thin body enabling it to pass among thickset reeds, while its muscular legs soon carry it beyond our reach. In these tactics it can generally escape from a dog. That it was flushed in the first place was a rare happening. In the migrations or when on long flights, the Virginia rail extends its legs horizontally behind like all water birds, and wings its way with considerable speed and power.

While the Virginia rail is able to run with agility through the grass and over the mud and even on the broad leaves of the water lilies floating on the water, it is also able to cling to the grass stalks and rushes or to the ascending branches of bushes and to climb to their summits. It also swims gracefully.

The best way to observe these shy birds is ~o take up one’s station near a pond or marsh frequented by them and watch patiently, silently, and immobile, and in so doing the watcher is often well rewarded. In pursuance of this plan I once concealed myself in the low branches of a willow and made the following observations (Townsend, 1920):

I heard an ear-piercing “~Spee” or “See” from near at hand and saw a Virginia rail threading its way in and out among the rushes, thrusting continually its long curved bill into the water and mud. It ran within 10 feet of me up onto the bank, so near that I could see its dark red eyes, and, as it disappeared in the cat-tails, another one appeared. Their frequently emitted notes were as sharp as those of a red squirrel, at time suggestive of the squeak made by the grass-blade stretched between the thumbs, at times a low guttural chattering or grunting or moaning; now a mild “cut-ta, cut-ta”, then a loud and disdainful “ek-ek”. The one that had passed me soon popped out of the cat-tails with a long worm hanging from its bill, but, disturbed by ray presence, turned back to reappear a little farther off and returned .to the rushes as before. It then flew out over the pond with weak, feeble wing beats, legs dangling close to the water, and the worm still in its bill. It landed feebly and awkwardly, sitting down in the water before scrambling t& its feet and elevating and depressing its short tail.

The courtship song and many of the calls have already been described, but the vocabulary of this bird is so extensive that it would be impossible to include it all here. Brewster (1902) describes, a common call as a “rapid succession of low yet penetrating grunts not unlike those of a hungry pig,” and he states that the grunting is emitted by both sexes. He also says that, “The female when anxious about her eggs or young also calls ‘ici-ici-ki’ and sometimes ‘kiu’ like a flicker.”

W. E. Saunders (1918) says:

The tone of the calls of the young resembled the squeaking of a door hinge and the vocal sound was “kee-a” the final syllable being very short, while in the case of the old birj.s, the first syllable was so short as to be inaudible at any considerable distance.

The small size of this rail, its long curved bill and its rich brown wings and underparts make its recognition in the field comparatively simple.

Game: While the sora is shot in great numbers for sport, the Virginia rail is rarely sought for this purpose. Its flight is so feeble that no skill is required to kill it, although a few are occasionally picked of! by. snipe shooters. In former days this bird was sometimes to be seen exposed for sale in the markets.

In their southern migrations in the autumn with ranks recruited by the summer’s broods, the Virginia rails are more easily seen than in the spring and their course is a more leisurely one. At this time of the year I have occasionally found them in the salt marshes of the coast.

Range: Southern Canada, the United Ste tes, and Central America south to Guatemala.

Breeding range: North to British Columbia (Beaver Creek, Chiliwack, probably 158-mile house and Okanagan); Montana (Columbia Falls and Great Falls); Saskatchewan (Indian Head); Manitoba (Shoal Lake, Chemawawin, Reaburn, and Winnipeg); Minnesota (Leach Lake and Millelacs Lake); Wisconsin (Madison, Kelley Brook, and West Depere); Michigan (Douglas Lake, Bay City, Pontiac, and Detroit); Ontario (Wellington ~.nd Waterloo Counties, Kingston, and Ottawa); Quebec (Montreal and Quebec); New Brunswick (Scotch Lake and St. John); and Nova Scotia (Kentville). Eest to Nova Scotia (Kentville); Maine (Fryeburg); Massachusetts (Boston); Rhode Island (Newport and Quonochontaug); New York (Shelter Island and New York City); New Jersey (Ocean County and Cape May); Virginia (Wallops Island); and North Carolina (Gull Shoal). South to North Carolina (Gull Shoal); Ohio (Lewiston Reservoir); Indiana (Bluifton); Kentucky (Henderson); Illinois (Mount Carmel and Vandalia); Missouri (Clark County); Iowa (Newton and Boone); Nebraska (London, Lincoln, and Valentine); Colorado (Clear Creek [near Denver], Fountain, and San Luis Lakes); probably New Mexico (Lake Burford); Mexico (Lerma); Lower California (San Ramon); Utah (Salt Lake City); Nevada (Carson City); and California (Lone Fine and Escondido). West to California (Escondido, Fullerton, Los Angeles, Tulare Lake, Paicines, Haywards, Eagle Lake, and Fort Crook); Oregon (Klamath Lake, Newport, and Beaverton); Washington (Tacoma, Waidron Island, and Bellingham Bay); and British Columbia (Victoria, Beaver Creek, and probably 158-mile House).

The Virginia rail was found at Tizimin, Yucatan, on June 23 (specimen in British Museum). It is casual in summer in Newfoundland (Reeks) and there is a record of one in 1891 from Hamilton Inlet, Labrador.

Winter range: N orth to British Columbia (Chilliwack and Okanagan); Utah (Prove); Colorado (Clear Creek [near Denver], and Barr); Arkansas (Stuttgart); Illinois (Mount Carmel); and North Carolina (Pea Island). East to North Carolina (Pea Island); rarely Bermuda; South Carolina (Charleston and Sea Islands); Georgia (Blackbeard Island and Darien); Florida (mouth of St. Johns River, Orlando, Titusville, and Fort Myers); Cuba (Isle of Pines) ; Mexico, Vera Cruz (Jalapa); and Guatemala (Antigua and Duenas). South to Guatemala (Duenas); State of Mexico (Lerma); Sinaloa (Mazatlan); Lower California (probably San Jose del Cabo and San Quentin); and California (Riverside and Tomales Bay). West to California (Tomales Bay); Oregon (Salem); Washington (Walla Walla and probably Port Townsend); and British Columbia (Chilliwack).

Casual in winter north to Virginia (Virginia Beach, January 6, 1912); Maryland (Easton, January 20, 1891); New Jersey (at a warm spring near Trenton, during January, 1869) ; New York (Long Island, February 6 to 13, 1885); Massachusetts (Barnstable, December 31, 1894, Cape Cod, December, 1892, and Worcester, January 1,1891); and Montana (Helena, February 22, and March 12, 1911).

Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: South Carolina, Charleston, April 1,1912; North Carolina, Raleigh, March 7,1891, and Highlands, April 6, 1910; West Virginia, Scott Depot, April 24, 1907, and Winfield, April 14, 1908; District of Columbia, April 2, 1903; Pennsylvania, State College, April 19, 1916; New Jersey; New York, Bear Mountain near Stony Point, March 13, 1920, Branchport, April 7, 1005, Ithaca, April 11, 1910, Geneva, April 15, 1911, East Otto, April 19, 1888, Lockport, April 22, 1890, Canandaigua, April 27, 1905, and Shelter Island, April 28, 1887; Connecticut, Middleton, April 6,1912, Portland, April 11, 1913, and Bethel, April 13, 1890; Massachusetts, Dennis, March 14, 1921, Rehoboth, April 17, 1884, Jamaica Plain, April 18, 1891, and Harvard, April 20, 1909; Quebec, Montreal, April 25, 1913; Kentucky, Bowling Green, April 6, 1902; Missouri, Marionville, March 24, 1920, and St. Louis, March 31, 1887; Illinois, Englewood, April 3,1889, Knoxville, April 9,1896, Hennepin, April 14, 1885, and Rockford, April 15, 1893; Indiana, Vincennes, March 28, 1921, Waterloo, March 31, 1907, Frankfort, April 1,1897, Indianapolis, April 7, 1916, and La Porte, April 17, 1892; Ohio, Hillsboro, March 13, 1918, Sandusky, March 27, 1902, Lakeside, April 3, 1917, Huron, April 14, 1913, Oberlin, April 14, 1913, and Canton, April 16,1911; Michigan, Albion, April 11, 1899, Vicksburg, April 12, 1905, and Ann Arbor, April 11, 1918; Ontario, Dunnville, April 23, 1889, and Toronto, April 30,1901; Iowa, Sioux City, April 22, 1916, and Keokuk, April 14, 1889; Wisconsin, Milwaukee, April 8, 1900, New Cassel, April 16, 1884, Delavan, April 19, 1896, and Madison, April 19, 1917; Minnesota, Elk River, April 25, 1915, Heron Lake, April 27, 1890, and Minneapolis, April 28, 1911; Nebraska, Lincoln, April 28, 1900, and Red Cloud, May 1, 1920; North Dakota, Grafton, May 12, 1916, and Grand Forks, May 14, 1903; Manitoba, Margaret, May 7,1910; Saskatchewan, Dinsmore, May 10, 1911, and Indian Head, May 19, 1910; and Alberta, Stony Plain, May 24, 1908.

Late dates of spring departure are: Lousiana, New Orleans, April 7; and Mississippi, Bay St. Louis, April 19, 1902.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Manitoba, Margaret, October 10, 1912; Nebraska, Valentine, October 7,1893, and Long Pine, October 10, 1898; Minnesota, Hutchinson, October 25, 1915; Wisconsin, Delavan, October 16, 1894, and Madison, October 21, 1913; Iowa, National, October 17, 1908; Ontario, Ottawa, October 14, 1889, and Toronto, November 10, 1906; Michigan, Livonia, September 9,1894, Charity Island, September 11, 1910, Ann Arbor, October 17, 1918, Manchester, November 2, 1894, and Vicksburg, November 24, 1912; Ohio, Youngstown, October 1,1914, Oberlin, October 7, 1907, Huron, October 16, 1912, Cleveland, October 18, 1915, Chillicothe, October 26, 1904, and Circieville, November 23, 1880; Indiana, Waterloo, October 17, 1905; Illinois, Chicago, November 5,1904; Quebec, Montreal, October 23, 1897; Massachusetts, Boston, October 5, 1909, and Harvard, November 29, 1914; Connecticut, Portland, October 20, 1890, and New Haven, October 29, 1904; New York, Canandaigua, October 3, 1905, Montauk Point, October 30, 1900, and Mayville, November 19, 1903; New Jersey, Atlantic City, November 6, 1891, and Dennis Creek, December 30, 1895; and Pennsylvania, Erie, October 28, 1893, Chester County, November 7, 1879, and Harvey’s Lake, November 18, 1911.

Early dates of fall arrival are: South Carolina, Mt. Pleasant, September 21; and Louisiana, southern part, October 1.

Egg dates: Southern New England and New York: 62 records, May 14, to August 6; 31 records, May 24 to 31. New Jersey and Pennsylvania: 12 records, May 17 to July 17; 6 records, May 23 to June 10. Michigan and Wisconsin: 18 records, May 21 to June 24; 9 records, May 30 to June 9. Utah and California: 12 records, April 3 to June 22; 6 records, May 20 to June 3. Washington: & records, April 1 to June 10; average May 1.

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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