Denizens of dense marshes, rails slip through low vegetation on foot, seldom flying. All have loud and distinctive voices but tend to call mainly at night. Few other birds are so elusive.
Two small species, Virginia Rail and Sora, are widespread in marshes across North America. Both are fairly common, but they’re so adept at staying out of sight that most birders encounter them first by voice. Fortunately, recordings of the birds are readily available today online or in apps, making it easy to learn their calls.
Also fortunately, these two common rails usually sound quite different. Sora typically gives a sharp keek, a plaintive, whistled surrr-eeee, or a descending whinny. Virginia Rail’s common calls include a metallic kik kidik kidik kidik and a descending, grunting series, wenk-wenk-wenk-wenk-wenk. It has other vocalizations that are heard far less often (see sidebar below).
Seen in the open, these two can be separated at a glance: Their overall colors differ, and the Sora has a short, stout, yellow bill while the Virginia Rail’s bill is long and thin. However, the Virginia Rail looks quite similar to two other species, King Rail and Ridgway’s Rail. They are larger, but it’s challenging to judge the size of a lone bird — especially when we’re startled by the unexpected thrill of seeing a rail at all. So, it’s worthwhile to study their ID ahead of time.
The King Rail is widespread in summer east of the Rockies and north to the Great Lakes, more scattered and localized toward the north. Farther south, in freshwater marshes from the Carolinas to Texas, it’s fairly common year-round. Virginia Rails in the East are more migratory, breeding across southern Canada and the northern and central states, wintering in the south.
In most areas of the West, nothing looks similar to the Virginia Rail. But along the California coast, and locally inland in southern California, Nevada, and Arizona, Ridgway’s Rail is a potential source of confusion. It’s very similar to the King Rail, so separating it from the Virginia Rail involves the same process.
The best plumage mark for ID is the face pattern. On Virginia Rail, the face is a smooth gray or blue-gray, contrasting against the brown nape and rusty orange-brown neck. On King and Ridgway’s Rails, the face is variably suffused with buff or brownish, so there’s no sharp contrast with the neck color. King Rail also often shows a cleaner pattern of black striping on the back than Virginia Rail.
With practice, shape is a good distinction. All these rails can stretch their necks at times, but Virginia Rail never looks as long-necked as the other two. King and Ridgway’s Rails look more elongated overall, with longer bodies and legs, while the Virginia always has a more compact look. But it takes a lot of time in the marshes to develop comparative experience with these shy birds.
What to look for
Size and shape. Roughly robin-sized with a very short tail, stout legs, and long, sharp bill.
Pattern of underparts. Bright rusty orange-brown on the neck and chest, with contrasting black and white bars on flanks.
Pattern of upperparts. Olive-brown back with blurry blackish stripes. Bright reddish brown on wing coverts, often hidden.
Face pattern. Gray or blue-gray face contrasts strongly against rusty brown of neck, unlike the pattern of similar rails.
Juveniles. Seen in summer, these are much darker and duller than adults, almost blackish on the underparts.
Widespread east of the Rockies, the King Rail overlaps extensively in range and habitat with the Virginia Rail and is the species most likely to be confused with it. The King is a much larger bird — almost twice the length of the Virginia Rail and four times the bulk — but size can be tricky to judge on a lone bird surrounded by marsh grass. On full alert, the King Rail looks longer-necked, but apparent neck length on both species varies depending on their momentary posture. The most reliable visual mark is the face pattern. On King Rail, a buff or pale brown wash suffuses the face, very different from the contrasting gray face of the Virginia Rail.
Formerly considered just a western population of Clapper Rail, Ridgway’s Rail is now recognized as a full species, found locally in salt marshes of the California coast and in salt and fresh marshes in the interior of the Southwest. The three subspecies in the U.S. differ slightly. This one (R. o. levipes of the southern California coast) is the most brightly colored. As such, it suggests the King Rail, which is found strictly east of the Rockies. However, Virginia Rails can occur in any habitat that hosts Ridgway’s Rails. The larger size and more elongated shape of Ridgway’s may be apparent with practice, but to be sure, look for the strongly contrasting gray face of Virginia Rail.
The overall pattern of an adult Virginia Rail can appear to change from moment to moment, depending on arrangement of the feathers. The wing coverts are bright reddish brown. They may be fairly obvious, as in this photo, or largely hidden by the body feathers. Similarly, the black and white barring on the flanks may be largely hidden under the wing, or those feathers may extend up over the wing even more than seen here. It’s worthwhile to keep these momentary variations in mind when we get brief views. The most important plumage mark, the abrupt change in color between the rusty brown neck and the gray face, should be obvious regardless of the bird’s posture.
Adult Virginia Rails show very little seasonal variation, aside from the bill looking richer orange-red in spring (and averaging brighter red in males than in females), but juveniles are strikingly different. Very dark gray overall, they are heavily mottled with black on the chest. Their eyes are dark olive at first, unlike the reddish brown iris color of adults, and their bills are dark. Such birds are seen only in summer and early fall; after their first molt, they look recognizably similar to adults. Juvenile King, Ridgway’s, and Clapper Rails are also darker and duller than adults, and separating them from juvenile Virginia Rails may depend upon a careful assessment of size, shape, and habitat.
The mystery of ‘the kicker’
In addition to its common calls, the Virginia Rail gives a loud, distinctive ki-ki-ki-ki-KREAAH, the first few notes sharp and metallic, the last more squealing. Dubbed the “kicker” call, it confused experts for years.
Early ornithologist William Brewster was fascinated by the call. He heard it in marshes in Massachusetts several times between 1889 and 1901. Although he noted its tone quality was similar to one Virginia Rail call, it was so infrequent that Brewster assumed it couldn’t be the voice of such a common species. In a paper published in The Auk in 1901, he suggested the “kicker” must be the rare Black Rail.
Amazingly, 60 years later, experts were still debating the source of this vocalization. The eminent Ludlow Griscom wrote in the 1940s that it was probably the Yellow Rail, but by 1955 he had decided it was more likely the Black Rail. The first Peterson Field Guide to Bird Songs record, released in 1959, included a recording of the call under Yellow Rail. After hearing the record, Chandler Robbins (later to be lauded for his skills at birding by ear) argued that it was Black Rail instead.
Finally, in the late 1960s, multiple observers confirmed that the “kicker” call is produced by the Virginia Rail. It’s now a well-established fact. But a mystery remains: Why don’t we hear this call more often? That’s a good question to consider for the future.
This article was first published in the March/April 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.