Virginia Rail – Profile | Facts | Description | Call | Range | Flying

Virginia Rail bird

The Virginia rail, scientific name Rallus limicola belongs to the Rallidae family of tiny waterbirds. Despite continued habitat degradation, these birds are very numerous, although they are shy by nature and are more commonly heard than seen.

In several provinces and states, they have also classified a game species, but they are rarely hunted. Although the Ecuadorian rail is typically considered a subspecies, some taxonomic authorities believe it is a separate species.

Virginia Rail Profile

Virginia rails are marshland birds that weigh between 55 and 124 g in both sexes. Females are smaller than males, weighing 64 to 77 grams and having a wingspan of 89 to 106 millimeters.

Males weigh between 79 and 104 grams and have a wingspan of between 99 and 113 millimeters. They range in length from 22 to 27 cm. The hue of their body feathers, legs, and bill are all reddish-brown, but their cheek feathers are gray. On the fifth digit of their chestnut wings is a tiny (1 mm) claw.

Hatchlings have black down feathers at first. Their initial molt occurs around the age of two weeks. They have their complete juvenile plumage by six weeks, which is duller and less striking than breeding adult plumage.

Juvenile irises are black when they hatch, but they become brown during growth and finally turn reddish-brown in adults. Chicks have dark bluish-black skin around their eyes.

This hue may also be observed on the majority of their heads. When the youngsters leave for autumn migration, their plumage is nearly identical to that of the adults. Adult males and females have a similar appearance.

Rails, according to Conway, have the greatest leg muscle to flight muscle ratio of any bird species. This ratio most likely explains why they are accustomed to sprinting (strong leg muscles) yet are poor, short flyers.

Geographical Extent

Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) are migratory birds with a range that extends from central to southern North America. Their breeding area is from New Brunswick, Canada, to the Pacific coast, and from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to New York City, with gaps in Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.

Their non-breeding range is from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico on the east coast of the United States. There are other populations on the United States’ western coast, although they are restricted to central Arizona and extend southward to the Baja Peninsula.

Central Mexico, encompassing both coastlines, is included in this area. In South America, wintering populations may be found in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.

Year-round populations of this species have been discovered in portions of Arizona, California’s coast, Washington’s northern point, and eastern Virginia. The Virginia rail has also been spotted in Bermuda and Greenland on rare occasions. The Mexican Plateau is home to only one subspecies of this animal (Rallus limicola limicola).

Virginia Rail Description

Adults are mostly brown, with orange-brown legs and a darker back and crown. They have evolved a horizontally compressed body and robust forehead feathers to endure wear by pushing through thick foliage in order to move through it.

All birds have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle, but Virginia rails have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle (25 percent – 15 percent of body weight respectively). They walk on floating plants with extended toes.

Their tail is small, and their crimson beak is long and slender. Their cheeks are grey, with a white neck and a bright band above the eye. Chicks are dark-skinned. Juveniles have a blackish-brown upper part with rufous feather edges, a brownish beak, and brownish legs.

Their underbelly is dark brown to black, with a grayish-brown face. Females are somewhat smaller than males, but both sexes are quite similar. Adults are 20–27 cm long, with a 32–38 cm wingspan, and weigh 65–95 g.

Distribution and Habitat

Freshwater and brackish marshes, as well as salt marshes in the winter, are home to the Virginia rail. Northerners migrate to the United States’ south and Central America. Some people live permanently on the Pacific shore.

Marshes from Nova Scotia to Southern British Columbia, California and North Carolina, as well as Central America, are where it breeds. It frequently lives alongside Soras.

Virginia rails have been found at altitudes ranging from 0 to 2,370 meters (the upper limit in Peruvian mountains). Virginia rails may be found in lower altitudes during their breeding season, especially in freshwater marshlands with a suitable concentration of emergent vegetation (between 40 cm and 100 cm), such as cattails (Typha) and bulrush (Scirpus).

They are most commonly found in shallow to moderate seas (0 to 15 cm) on mudflats. They dislike deeper waters (20 to 40 cm), but will live in them provided there is enough fallen floating foliage on which they may move and feed.

Except for those who dwell in Arizona, their winter habitat is identical to their breeding habitat. This population migrates from open marshy waters to marshy environments with greater cover and emergent plant heights of more than 100 cm.

Virginia Rail Behavior

Instead of flying, the Virginia rail often runs to avoid predators. When it does fly, it generally only does so for short distances or to migrate. It can also swim and dive by propelling itself with its wings.

Virginia rails are active at night, foraging at different times of the day and night. They spend most of their time on the ground, walking, hopping, or sprinting, due to poorly developed flight muscles coupled with extremely powerful leg muscles.

They do fly during migration, but only for short periods of time, and their landings are awkward and harsh. These birds keep their tails up and fan them as they move. Their black and white covert feathers are shown as a result of this. They can swim and dive as well, although they mainly do so to avoid predators.

Virginia rails are solitary during the mating season but tolerate soras (Porzana carolina) in their territory. During the time of establishment and pair formation, Virginia rails are territorial and aggressively protect their nests.

However, there is a trade-off: by protecting their nests so fiercely, they are less likely to defend their territory’s outside borders. During the winter, they do not defend their territory.


This bird makes a variety of sounds, including a loud kuk kuk kuk that may be heard at night. It makes groaning noises as well. It will produce tick-it or kid-ick calls in the spring.

Virginia Rail Communication

Grunts, tick-its, kickers, and kius are the four main forms of calls made by adult Virginia rails, according to Conway (1995). Pairs utilize a duetting grunt to recognize one another.

It’s also used to detect neighbors and defend against aggressive males on the ground. Males hear their “tick-it” cries in the spring, and they may be connected to mating because the duetting grunts are all that can be heard in the vicinity immediately after a “tick-it” sound is answered with a “kicker” cry.

Both sexes can make a “kiu” call, which is considered to be an alarm sound.


In muck or shallow water, the Virginia rail explores with its bill, taking up food by sight. Beetles, flies, dragonflies, crayfish, snails, and earthworms are among the insects and other aquatic invertebrates it eats.

It may also consume seeds and water creatures like frogs, fish, and tiny snakes. The majority of this bird’s diet consists of animal prey, however, vegetation plays a role in the fall and winter.

Virginia Rail Habitual consumption of food

Virginia rails consume tiny invertebrates including beetles, snails, spiders, earthworms, and fly (Diptera) larvae during the mating season. The summer diet consists of 85-97 percent animal components.

They mostly feed in shallow areas or mudflats, probing the waters with their bills in rapid and continuous succession. They have been observed standing on floating marsh reeds to forage for aquatic invertebrates such as crayfish, as well as small vertebrates such as frogs, small fish, and snakes when the water is deep (more than 20 cm).

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Virginia Rail Reproduction

Around May, the courtship begins. The male will spread his wings and sprint back and forth beside the female. The male feeds the female and both sexes bow. Before copulation, the male grunts as he approaches the female.

Rails in Virginia are monogamous. Only the male defends the territory, whereas both parents build the nest and care for the young. The nest is made up of a basket of braided plants and is created as soon as the first egg is deposited.

Cattails, reeds, and grasses are used to construct the nest. They also construct fake nests around the marsh. They build their nest towards the base of emergent foliage in regions where there is a canopy of vegetation above the nest.

A clutch of 4 to 13 white or buff eggs with patchy gray or brown spotting is laid by this species. The eggs are usually 32 by 24 centimeters in size (1.26 by 0.94 in). Both parents incubate them for 20 to 22 days, during which time the parents continue to add nesting material to hide the nest.

When the eggs hatch, the parents feed the chicks for two to three weeks until they are self-sufficient. In less than a month, the young can fly. After the children become independent, the parents’ couple relationship dissolves.

Rails in Virginia are monogamous. Their courtship lasts only a few days and is marked by tick-it sounds audible across the area. This courting can be started by either sex.

Silently standing side-by-side for 30-minute chunks of time is a part of the courting, which can continue up to two weeks. Males conduct a dance in which they run in circles around females, raising their wings above their heads and flitting their tails, bowing in front of the ladies with each pass.

Once a pair bond has been established, they begin preening themselves and their mate (autopreening and allopreening, respectively), chasing each other about their nesting territory, and mating.

They communicate through cries, participate in courtship feeding, and defend their area as a group. Mating was observed 20 days before the first egg was laid and stopped after the last egg was deposited in captive experiments.

The construction of the nest begins approximately a week before the first egg is deposited, which is generally in early May. The nest is constructed from whatever plants are readily accessible, such as cattails Typha or bulrush Scirpus.

The nest’s outside diameter was measured at 17.3 cm. The dense foliage that surrounds the nest offers sufficient shelter and hiding from predators. The nest is generally built near shallow water with emergent plants, rather than near open water.

The pair connection can endure longer than the bond between a parent and its young, although it usually dissolves before or shortly after migration or fledges.

The Virginia rails’ breeding season begins in early April and lasts until early September. During this period, a couple of Virginia rails can have up to two broods, each containing four to thirteen eggs (mean 8.5). Populations in the northern part of the region tend to have larger clutches than those in the south.

The first egg can be found as early as the first week of April and as late as mid-July. Nesting females deposit one egg each day. Egg-laying peaks in May or June, depending on latitude. The incubation period is around 19 days long.

Partners feed each other during the incubation phase. The eggs begin to break 48 hours before hatching, and peeping may be heard from within. It might take up to 36 hours for the chick to break out from its shell. The majority of hatchings are synchronous, meaning that they happen within two days of each other.

Chicks are precocial, with an average birth weight of 5.4 grams and a range of 5.0 to 5.8 grams. The children are estimated to gain 1.5 to 3 g of body mass every day.

Within four hours of hatching, they may preen themselves and their siblings, and feed within the first two hours. Rail chicks from Virginia are fully coated in black down. A 1-mm black band runs down the middle of their bill, and a white egg tooth remains for the first two weeks after hatching.

Rail chicks in Virginia mature fast. Chicks can stand, preen, drink, and swim before the end of their first day after hatching. After four days of hatching, they depart the nest.

By day 23, adult behaviors like food probing, nest-mate antagonism, nest-building activity, and play-fighting have been attained. By the age of four weeks, Virginia rails can fly.

By the age of 4-6 weeks, they are self-sufficient. It’s also at this period when they’re thought to reach sexual maturity. They are capable of reproducing in their first year of life.

Rails in Virginia demonstrate parental involvement. Both parents alternate shifts incubating the eggs every one to two hours, however, females are reported to incubate 60-80% of the time.

They’re both there during the hatching and assist the chicks in escaping the egg by removing parts of the nest’s shell. The chicks’ brooding period lasts around two weeks, during which both parents feed their young.

They keep the chicks close to the nesting place for the first 3-4 weeks, but as they develop freedom, they gradually increase their range.

When their children are in danger, both parents act fiercely to protect them. To ward against intruders, they bend their heads and extend their necks, making frequent rasping sounds. When it comes to protecting their offspring, females are more violent than males.

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