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Virginia rail

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Virginia rail
In Morro Bay, California, USA
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Rallidae
Genus: Rallus
R. limicola
Binomial name
Rallus limicola
Vieillot, 1819

The Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) is a small waterbird, of the family Rallidae. These birds remain fairly common despite continuing loss of habitat, but are secretive by nature and more often heard than seen.[2] They are also considered a game species in some provinces and states, though rarely hunted.[3] The Ecuadorian rail is often considered a subspecies, but some taxonomic authorities consider it distinct.


R. l. aequatorialis (left) and nominate (right)

Adults are mainly brown, darker on the back and crown, with orange-brown legs. To walk through dense vegetation, they have evolved a laterally compressed body and strong forehead feathers adapted to withstand wear from pushing through vegetation. Virginia rails have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle of all birds (25% - 15% of body weight respectively). They have long toes used to walk on floating vegetation. Their tail is short and they have a long slim reddish bill. Their cheeks are grey, with a light stripe over the eye and a whitish throat. Chicks are black. Juveniles are blackish brown on upperparts with rufous on the edge of feathers and brownish bill and legs. Their underparts are dark brown to black, while the face is grayish brown.[4] Both sexes are very similar, with females being slightly smaller. Adults measure 20–27 cm, with a wingspan of 32–38 cm, and usually weigh 65-95 g.



The Virginia rail is in the genus Rallus, a genus of other long-billed rails. It is thought to be closely related to R. semiplumbeus and R. antarcticus. There are currently two recognized subspecies of Rallus limicola:

  • R. l. limicola Vieillot, 1819
  • R. l. friedmanni Dickerman, 1966

Habitat and distribution


The Virginia rail lives in freshwater and brackish marshes, sometimes salt marshes in winter. Northern populations migrate to the southern United States and Central America. On the Pacific coast, some are permanent residents. Its breeding habitat is marshes from Nova Scotia to Southern British Columbia, California and North Carolina, and in Central America. It often coexists with soras, another species of wetland rail.



The Virginia rail often runs to escape predators, instead of flying. When it does fly, it is usually short distances or for migration. It can also swim and dive using its wings to propel itself.



This bird has a number of calls, including a harsh kuk kuk kuk, usually heard at night. It also makes grunting noises. In spring, it will make tick-it or kid-ick calls.



The Virginia rail probes with its bill in mud or shallow water, also picking up food by sight. It mainly eat insects and other aquatic invertebrates, like beetles, flies, dragonflies, crayfish, snails and earthworms. It can also eat aquatic animals like frogs, fish and some small snakes, as well as seeds. Animal preys constitute the biggest part of this bird's diet, but vegetation contributes to its diet in the fall and winter.



Courtship starts around May. The male will raise his wings and run back and forth next to the female. Both sexes bow, and the male feeds the female. Before copulation, the male approaches the female while grunting.[5] Virginia rails are monogamous. Both parents build the nest and care for the young, whereas only the male defends the territory. The nest is built as the first egg is laid and consists of a basket of woven vegetation. The nest is made using plants like cattails, reeds and grasses. They also build dummy nests around the marsh. They nest near the base of emergent vegetation in areas with vegetation creating a canopy above the nest.[6]

This birds lays a clutch of 4 to 13 white or buff eggs with sparse gray or brown spotting. The eggs generally measure 32 by 24 millimetres (1.26 by 0.94 in). They are incubated by both parents for a period of 20 to 22 days, in which the parents continue to add nesting material to conceal the nest.[6] When the eggs hatch, the parents feed the young for two to three weeks, when the chicks become independent. The young can fly in less than a month. The pair bond between the parents breaks after the young become independent.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2019). "Rallus limicola". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2019: e.T22692479A155617216. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T22692479A155617216.en. Retrieved 13 November 2021.
  2. ^ "Virginia Rail". Audubon. National Audubon Society. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  3. ^ Tacha, Thomas C.; Braun, Clait E. (1994). Migratory shore and upland game bird management in North America. Washington, D.C.: International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior. pp. 193–206. ISBN 0935868755.
  4. ^ "Virginia Rail". All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  5. ^ "Râle de Virginie". Oiseaux.net. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  6. ^ a b Hauber, Mark E. (1 August 2014). The Book of Eggs: A Life-Size Guide to the Eggs of Six Hundred of the World's Bird Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-226-05781-1.