At a Glance
Seldom seen but often heard, this medium-sized rail lives in marshes across much of our continent. This bird and the Sora are often found together, but their diets differ: the short-billed Sora eats many more seeds, while the long-billed Virginia Rail eats mostly insects. Virginia Rails communicate with a wide variety of calls, and some of these can be mystifying to listeners; one, dubbed the 'kicker call,' was attributed to the elusive Yellow Rail for many years.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Chicken-like Marsh Birds, Rails, Gallinules, Coots
Coasts and Shorelines, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Freshwater Wetlands, Saltwater Wetlands
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Flushes, Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Some in west may be permanent residents. Most migrate as far as southern United States, northern Mexico; some as far as Guatemala. Another race is resident in South America.
9-11" (23-28 cm). Long-billed. Rich rusty cinnamon below, with contrasting gray cheeks, sharp black and white bars on flanks, reddish on wings. King Rail is much larger, has tan or brownish cheeks. Compare also to Ridgway's Rail. Juvenile Virginia Rail is blackish at first.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Gray, Red
Songs and Calls
A far-carrying ticket, ticket, ticket, ticket; various grunting notes.
Falling, Flat, Rising
Chirp/Chip, Croak/Quack, Whistle
Fresh and brackish marshes; in winter, also salt marshes. Nests in a variety of marshy situations, mostly fresh, but also brackish marsh near coast. Where this species and Sora breed in same marshes, Virginia Rail typically places its nest in drier spots. Often moves into salt marshes in winter. During migration, sometimes found in odd spots, even city streets.
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5-13. Pale buff, lightly spotted with brown and gray. Incubation is by both parents, about 18-20 days.
Downy young leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents feed young and brood them while they are small. Family remains on breeding territory until chicks are full-grown, then adults may depart, while young remain. Chicks are fed by parents until they are 2-3 weeks old, then become independent; are able to fly at about 25 days.
Forages by probing in mud or shallow water, picking items from ground or from plants, or stalking small creatures and capturing them with a swift thrust of the bill.
Mostly insects, crayfish, snails; some seeds. Feeds on a wide variety of aquatic insects and their larvae, especially beetles, flies, dragonflies, many others. Also eats crayfish, earthworms, snails, slugs, a few small fish. Seeds may be important in diet at times.
In courtship, male runs back and forth near female with wings raised; male and female both make bowing motions; male feeds female. Nest site is in marsh, in dry area or over very shallow water, placed a few inches up in dense clump of vegetation. Nest (built by both sexes) is platform of cattails, reeds, grasses, usually with living plants forming a canopy over it.
Has declined in many areas with loss of marsh habitat; still widespread and fairly common.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Virginia Rail. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Virginia Rail
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.