What is a rail? In this case, it isn’t the tracks the trains run on, but instead it is a group of slender, small to medium sized, chicken-shaped marsh birds in the Rallidae family. The most abundant rail in North America is right here – the Sora. They are also known as the Carolina Rail and the meadow chicken.
They like fresh and brackish water where they eat plants and aquatic invertebrates. Their long toes rake through vegetation as they look for sedge, grass, rice and smartweed seeds. The surface of the water provides snails, dragonflies, flies and beetles to round out their diet.
The Sora is a marsh bird that hides in cattails and rushes. As it walks slowly out of the reeds, the first thing you will notice is its bill. Remember Halloween candy corn? Put that on the face of a gray and brown bird and you have a Sora. There is a black mask around the stubby yellow beak, gray cheeks and mostly brown feathers on the back with white streaking and gray feathers underneath. They are about 9 inches long with short rounded wings, and short tails. The body is described as a “chicken that has had too much coffee” since it walks through the marsh and nervously flicks its tail displaying white feathers underneath.
You might not expect this chubby bird to fly, but it does as it migrates to wetlands in Central and South America. Gathering in large groups late in summer and early in fall, they build up fat reserves for migration. They migrate mostly at night and easily cross large bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.
Rather than flying or jumping, a Sora makes a “whinny call” when startled. If you are tramping through the wetlands, you may hear this call before you see this secretive bird.
The female weaves a nest of marsh vegetation lined with finer material just a few inches above water and hidden in dense vegetation. She will start laying eggs as soon as the foundation is complete. She will bend down vegetation to arch over the nest tucking in the ends to provide additional cover. There may even be a ramp of damp vegetation leading from the nest to the marsh.
The female lays 10-12 eggs and incubation starts after the first few are laid. Eggs, therefore, do not all hatch at the same time. One parent has responsibility for caring for the nestlings while the other continues with incubation. The young are precocial and leave the nest soon after hatching and will be fed by both parents. They can fly between 21 and 25 days.
Where did the name “rail” come from? It is the anglicized spelling of the French râle which is derived from Latin rdere which means “to scrape” just like the Sora scrapes with its toes to locate food. In Japanese, Sora means “sky” and in Native American it means “warbling songbird.”
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.