The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) is a swamphen in the genus Porphyrio. They are in the order Gruiformes, meaning “crane-like”, an order which also contains Cranes, Rails, and Crakes. Purple Gallinules are a Rail species, placing them into the family Rallidae. They are also known locally as the yellow-legged Gallinule.Continue reading Purple Gallinule
The Yellow Rail is an exceptionally elusive bird that lives and hides among the tall grasses of the prairies. These birds are some of the most secretive birds in North America. They are notoriously difficult for observers to spot in their natural habitat. They only fly at night but may fly during the day if they are under extreme pressure. They prefer to run or hide while staying close to the tall vegetation, making it tricky to find them. Their silent movements make it even harder to find them.Continue reading Yellow Rail
The Virginia Rail is a fascinating bird! They have laterally compressed bodies they are thin from a front perspective, but full-bodied if we look at their side profile. They are proud monogamous birds that have elaborate pair-formation rituals and are fiercely defensive of their territory and young ones.
Named after Virginia, these birds are found across the United States of America and parts of Canada. They can be found throughout the year in parts of Arizona, coastal California, northern Washington, and eastern Virginia. They can also be seen on occasion in Bermuda and even Greenland!
Now that we have piqued your interest, let us not waste any time in getting to know these birds! In this article, we will cover the following topics:
● Virginia Rail Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Virginia Rail Size, Eating behavior, Habitat
● Virginia Rail Range and Migration, Nesting
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Virginia Rail Color Pattern
Virginia Rails have bright color palettes. They have reddish bodies with distinctive gray cheeks. Their wings are a chestnut-color, and their flanks have black and white bands. Virginia Rail underparts, save for patches on their mid-breasts and abdomens are fuscous black or grayish, and an olive-brown. Their sides are the color of the spots and their heads can also be grayish olive-brown.
As hatchlings, they are fully covered in glossy black down with a metallic dark green dual chrome gloss, with bare crowns. Hatchlings have pale pink bills with thin black outlining of their nares and singular white spots on the tip of their upper mandibles. As they grow into their Juvenile plumage starting at 2 to 2.5 weeks after hatching, their ventral tracts can be sooty black to dirty white. Their wing coverts develop a reddish-brown color by the 4-week mark, similar to the adult plumage. The juvenile plumage is complete by the 6th week after hatching. Chicks maintain dark, bluish-black skin on their heads and around their eyes.
A month after hatching, the bills become entirely black. As they grow into adults, the bills become reddish-brown, the maxilla becomes brownish and the mandible becomes a dull, orange-red color. The bill fades into a dusky hue towards the tip. In the spring, their lower mandibles appear more red than usual. At hatching, the hatchlings have black irises and turn to dark olive by their third week, to olive-brown by the fourth week. Adults have reddish-brown or russet irises. Their irises prove to be useful cues to distinguish adults and juveniles in the field. Their legs change color as they grow up, from dark, brownish-black at hatching to a dusky brown hue by 2-3 months of age, to a dusky reddish-brown in the adult plumage.
Description and Identification
It might be difficult to spot a Virginia Rail in dense vegetations and marshes, but their loud grunt often gives them away, so make sure to pay attention to sounds. These birds can be confused with other members of the Rails family, but there are tried and tested markers that help us distinguish one from another.
Virginia Rails can often be confused with Clapper Rails and King Rails, but compared to these two, Virginias are much smaller in size, with more reddish bills. They also have more distinctly gray cheeks.
Virginia Rail Song
As chicks, Virginia Rails emit “pee-eep” sounds. The adults have four major categories of vocalizations, as described below. The most frequent call is a grunt call, that an adult pair sings as a duet! They emit antiphonal or synchronized sounds that can often sound like a single note. They sing these notes to defend their territories and to communicate with one another during the breeding season.
On occasion, adult Virginia Rails emit “tick-it” calls. They usually use this call only during spring, and it is likely that only males emit this call. The kicker call is also quite rare and used in the early spring. It is likely to be a breeding call, similar to the “kek-burr” call by their friends, the Clapper Rails. They also sometimes let out a sharp, piercing “kiu” call that can also take a raspier tone. This may be to guard their territory or warn their partner of an incoming predator.
Virginia Rail Size
Virginia Rails can be larger than a Robin, but smaller than a Crow. Across sexes, their average length is 7.9 to 10.6 inches, and on average they weigh 2.3 to 4.37 ounces. Their average wingspan is 12.6 to 15 inches, and they have claws on their outer digits that are 1 millimeter or 0.4 inches long.
Virginia Rail Behavior
These birds rarely fly, except for their migratory flights. Due to evolution and the lack of exercising these muscles, they have poor flight. They fly with rapid wing beats on their short, round wings. Virginia Rails often dive or drop to the ground in a crashing manner after even the shortest of flights, rather ungracefully.
They have very flexible vertebrae. This may hinder their flying capabilities, but it allows them to move with ease through dense marshes and understory vegetation. They are deft divers and swimmers. To propel themselves underwater, they use movements of their wings to create a pushing force. They poke their heads just above the water, or sometimes just their bills and eyes, and keep their bodies underwater after they have dived.
Pairs routinely engage in both allopreening and autopreening. They roost in the same locations every night, and they may let out breeding-related vocalizations but seldom do they move.
They forage regularly at dawn and dusk, but they are active at all other times of day as well. Their bodies have evolution-driven features that allow them to survive in their dense habitats, such as the mucous-laden skin in their nasal valves that protect them from abrasion and their modified feather tips that prevent wearing.
These birds are fiercely territorial and monogamous as adults. The pair-formation process consists of chases prior to copulation, rituals of exchanging calls, and defense of their territory. Like in most species of Rails, males are likely to take on territorial defense duties almost exclusively.
The adults of a pair protect their young aggressively and even approach incoming predators with threatening, rasping calls, bowing, and outstretching their heads and necks. The female adult of a pair can be the more aggressive adult while protecting their young, even after fledging.
Virginia Rail Diet
Their diet consists primarily of insects, crayfish, snails, and occasionally seeds. The insects they feed on are usually aquatic and have a wide variety. They particularly enjoy beetles, flies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and also the larvae of these insects. They also enjoy earthworms, snails, slugs, and select varieties of small fish. Seeds can be important to their diet during particular seasons.
They forage at dawn and dusk by probing in mud or shallow water puddles. They pick their food from both the ground and plants. While pursuing live prey, they stalk small creatures and swiftly thrust their bills forward to capture them.
Virginia Rail Habitat
During the breeding season, Virginia Rails stick to freshwater wetlands, but they build nests in salt marshes on rare occasions. They use relatively drier spots in the marshes. They prefer robust emergent vegetation, such as cattails and bulrush in freshwater and on occasion, saltwater marshes on the coast.
The most crucial features of their habitats are that they are provided with shallow water, emergent cover, and substrate that have a good number of invertebrates for them to feed on.
Wetlands in Maine attract breeding populations because of their abundance of emergent vegetation as compared to unused wetlands. Iowa and Arizona are home to populations that use emergent vegetation, with homogenous stands. Most other populations inhabiting other states seem to prefer more varied stands.
These birds prefer shallow and moderate water depths but can make do with deep water habitats. They may use deepwater habitats where there is sufficient foliage on the surface of the water on which they can walk and forage. Virginia Rails usually forage in muddy, unstable substrates. They avoid dry areas of emergent vegetation.
Range and Migration
Populations inhabiting most areas migrate for warmth. Their arrival to the breeding grounds has a lot to do with the timing of the arrival of spring, and also the intensity of the spring weather.
They also migrate during the fall. Here again, their arrival depends on the arrival of the fall weather. Apart from these two major migration patterns, they also make seasonal movements, most likely depending on the availability of food, or the emergence of predators.
Virginia Rail Lifecycle
The hatchlings are fed by both parents right after the hatching process is complete. The chicks barely engage in begging behavior, but the young do let out loud peeps to initiate feeding from their parents. The young learn how to feed themselves at anywhere between 3 to 7 days after hatching. After a week, they are fully capable of foraging for themselves.
Parents often carry their young nestlings in their bills, as they do for the eggs prior to their hatching. The chicks develop adult body proportions by 3 to 4 weeks after hatching and gain the mass of adults by 6 weeks.
We have little research on their mating or pair formation. We do know that the adult males arrive on the breeding grounds first, and the pairs associate shortly after the arrival of the females. The pairs stay together throughout a single nesting cycle. The mating may be initiated by either of the sexes.
During the process of pair bonding, the adults preen each other. They also stand side-by-side, without any vocalization for sessions of up to 0.5 hours. This standing ritual can last anywhere between 1 to 2 weeks. They also engage in courtship feeding. The nest-building ritual begins less than a week prior to the laying of the first egg, and the construction can take up to 4 days. Even after the nest is built, the birds continue to add material to it, especially if the water levels of the habitat rise. This is presumably for strength. Both adults build the nest.
The nests themselves are loosely constructed basket cups that usually camouflage well in the dense vegetation. They often have canopies of vegetation above the basket that are constructed by bending adjacent vegetation to cover the top of the cups. Their eggs are creamy white or buff and sparsely dotted with brown, lilac, and gray specks.
Anatomy of a Virginia Rail
Virginia Rails are chicken-resembling marsh birds with long, heavy bills and short, upcurved tails. From the font angle, they look thin. However, their side profile is full-bodied and bulky, giving them a laterally compressed body. Females are on average smaller than males, but this is not a good field marker.
Having learned so much about this bird, we are sure you are excited to spot one in the field. However, human activity has greatly disturbed their existence. They are widely hunted for game in 37 States in the United States of America and 1 province of Canada. The effect of hunting activity on these birds is not systematically recorded, but it is known to be at a generally sustainable level.
They are also susceptible to toxicities in pesticides and other contaminants. Conservation efforts are being implemented to reduce this for all birds, which will hopefully keep these wonderful birds from becoming endangered.
There are several pressing topics that need to be researched in further detail so that we can understand these birds better. Firstly, an institutional survey of the seasonal activity of the birds and their behavior towards human activity would greatly help conservationist efforts. We also need more information on their biology to better assess the effects of toxic chemicals in commonly used substances on their survival. We must also focus on their brooding and pair formation.
Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes
At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.
- Kids Bird Watching Monthly Subscription$10.00 / month
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Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingVirginia Rails
The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Virginia Rails are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.
Virginia Rail Stickers
Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Virginia Rail. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.
Bird Feeders For Virginia Rails
There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.
Bird HousesFor Virginia Rails
There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.
A clattering cackle in the salt marsh is often our first clue to the presence of this big Rail. The Clapper Rail is usually hidden in dense cover, but sometimes we see it stalking boldly along the muddy edge of the marsh, twitching its short tail as it walks, or swimming across a tidal creek. Historically it was abundant on the Atlantic Coast, but now much more localized, as coastal marsh has been broken up by development.Continue reading Clapper Rail