Bird Identification – Rails

Rails are such shy, skulking hiders among the tall marsh grasses that “every child” need never hope to know them all; but a few members of the family that are both abundant and noisy, may be readily recognised by their voices alone.

All rails prefer to escape from an intruder through the sedges in well-worn runways rather than trust their short, rounded wings to bear them beyond danger; and for forcing their way through grassy jungles, their narrow-breasted, wedge-shaped bodies are perfectly adapted. Compressed almost to a point in front, but broad and blunt behind where their queer little short-pointed tails stand up, the rails’ small figures thread their way in and out of the mazes over the oozy ground with wonderful rapidity.

“As thin as a rail” means much to the cook who plucks one. It offers even a smaller bite than a robin to the epicure. When a gunner routs a rail it reluctantly rises a few feet above the grasses, flies with much fluttering, trailing its legs after it, but quickly sinks in the sedges again. Except in game bags, you rarely see a rail’s varied brown and gray back or its barred breast. The bill is longer than the head. The long, widespread, flat toes help the owner to tread a dinner out of the mud as well as to swim across an inlet; and the short hind toes enable him to cling when he runs up the rushes to reach the tassels of grain at the top. No doubt you once played with some mechanical toy that made a noise something like the peculiar, rolling cackle of the clapper rail. This “marsh hen,” which is common in the salt meadows along our coast from Long Island southward, continually betrays itself by its voice; otherwise you might never suspect its presence unless you are in the habit of pushing a punt up a creek to get acquainted with the interesting shy creatures that dwell in what Thoreau called “Nature’s sanctuary.”

The clapper’s cousin, the sora, or Carolina rail, so well known to gunners, alas! if not to “every child,” delights to live wherever wild rice grows along inland lakes and rivers or along the coast. Its sweetly whistled spring song ker-wee, ker-wee, and “rolling whinny” give place in autumn to the ‘kuk, kuk, ‘k-‘k’k-‘kuk imitated by alleged sportsmen in search of a mere trifle of flesh that they fill with shot. As Mrs. Wright says of the bobolinks (neighbours of the soras in the rice fields) so may it be written of them; they only serve “to lengthen some weary dinner where a collection of animal and vegetable bric-a-brac takes the place of satisfactory nourishment.”