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What is a Virginia Rail?

Steve R.
Steve R.

A Virginia Rail (Railus limicola) is a medium-sized bird found in freshwater and salt marshes and wetlands throughout mostly North America. A brownish bird with a compact body similar to a chicken, the Virginia Rail is reclusive and likes to keep itself hidden in its environment. A common migratory bird, the Virginia Rail is capable of flight, but has rather strong legs and so it often runs or walks better than it flies.

Standing about 10 inches (about 4 centimeters) tall, the bird possesses a wing span of 13 inches (about 5 centimeters) and adults tip the scales at between 2 and 4 ounces (about 57 to 113 grams). Males are slightly larger than females. The bird has a flexible vertebrae, long toes, a dark crown, gray face, and a distinctive long, slim, dark-colored beak that curves downward. Its eyes, legs, and chest are red, while its short tail is black on one side and white on the other.


The Virginia Rail can be found throughout most of northern and western United States, as well as in southern Canada and in some areas of Mexico. Even though the bird possesses weak wings, it is still able to travel long distances. Most birds migrate in the winter to Mexico, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. Birds in the southwestern United States typically do not migrate.

As the bird prefers to live in dense vegetation, its forehead feathers have adapted to withstand wear from trudging through this thick habitat. The bird is also capable of swimming underwater, thrusting itself and using its wings to escape from predators, which include rats, coyotes, crows, and raptors. The Virginia Rail is also sometimes hunted as a game bird.

In marshes and wetlands, the bird uses its long bill to search the water for food. Its diet consists mostly of insects and insect larvae, as well as fish, snails, slugs, frogs, and even small snakes. The bird also eats aquatic plants and, in the winder, seeds.

Rails build their nests in the spring in shallow water using bits of dead vegetation and often build fake nests nearby to fool predators. During breeding season, the birds often make high-pitched, pig-like grunts. A female will lay up to 13 white- or gray-spotted eggs during breeding season.

In less than three weeks, the eggs hatch. Within a day of hatching, the young are capable of swimming and leave the nest in three or four days. In less than a month, the young are able to fly. The diet of the young consists mostly of insects.

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