Species Spotlight: Virginia Rail
Have you ever found yourself walking through a marsh or swamp, only to be startled by an otherworldly sound coming from the reeds that you’re walking past? Chances are good that what you’re hearing is a Virginia Rail. Very secretive birds, they are rarely seen and usually only heard during their breeding season when they’ll call back and forth through the marsh to one another.
Well situated for their habitat, Virginia Rails have adaptations that allow them to move like ghosts throughout the marshes they inhabit. Their name comes from their ability to laterally compress their bodies, becoming “thin as a rail” to move in and out of the reeds efficiently. Add in large feet with long toes, and flexible vertebrae and this bird is perfectly built for the areas they roam.
During breeding season, the males will call to one another, and to females. Male Virginia Rails can be quite competitive when searching for a mate, and more than once I have had multiple males chase each other across paths from one side to the other. During these times they have rarely even noticed my presence, so consumed with ridding their territories of other males.
These birds have a pretty variable diet, eating anything from various insects to earthworms, crayfish, slugs, snails, and even some small fish. Seeds may also play an important part in their diets at times.
Another interesting fact about the Virginia Rail is that their forehead feathers are adapted to withstand wear from making their way through dense marshes. The adaptability of these birds is outstanding! They can swim underwater to flee predators and along with other rails, have the highest ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles of any bird.
Though marsh habitat is shrinking in many areas, these birds are doing well for the time being, and are listed as a “least concern” species by the IUCN. That being said, it’s never a terrible idea to get out and visit/support your local marshlands. In the spring months, you’ll hear these amazing birds calling out to one another, and if you’re patient (and a little lucky) you might catch a glimpse of a “ghost” bird!
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