Much of the time the Virginia rails slink unseen through the marshes, but their loud, grunting and sometimes pig-like calls betray their presence. Instead of the usual rotund shape of most bird’s belly, this and other rails are laterally compressed (jargon for squished sideways), an adaptation to help them move easily through the dense reeds and other thick marsh vegetation.
How to spot one: They are much more often heard than seen as most rails keep hidden in their marsh habitat. With luck or perseverance, you may spot one out in the open, typically on a mudflat next to dense cover. They appear chickenlike but with a long reddish bill, overall rusty coloration and a posture with their short tail cocked up.
When and Where: In south-central Washington, look for this species mostly during the warmer months when their marshland habitat is teeming with insect life. As much of their habitat is frozen in winter, most Virginia rails east of the Cascade crest migrate south to ice-free climes in the southern United States and as far south as Guatemala.
In Yakima, listen for Virginia Rails in the marsh west of the Yakima Greenway south of Sarg Hubbard Park. The marsh in Yakima Sportsman State Park is another reliable site. Smaller marshes host this species, such as those along East Selah Road south of Firing Center Road. In the Lower Yakima Valley, Toppenish NWR is a good bet as is nearby Lateral C just north of Toppenish Creek.
Chow time: Insects of many types, including beetles, flies, and dragonflies form the majority of their diet. Slugs, snails, and small fish are also taken. Seeds form a minor part of their diet.
Home life: The male in courtship scurries back and forth in view of the female with its wings raised and both sexes doing exaggerated bowing motions. The nest is a very simple affair, a shallow shelf of vegetation amidst dense cover in a marsh, often with green leaves forming a protective “roof,” just above the water level.
The female lays a big clutch, 6-12 eggs, as is typical of ground nesting birds where predation is a big risk. Both parents incubate for 17-20 days. The chicks are precocial from the start and follow both parents to insect-rich areas in the marshes, often mudflats not far from cover. The young can take short flights after three weeks. The parents may depart south on their migration before the young.
Overall, Virginia rails have suffered mightily continent-wide, due to destruction of their marsh habitat. Where this habitat is preserved, they remain fairly common.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.