Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE VIRGINIAN RAIL.
RALLUS VIRGINIANUS, Linn.
PLATE CCCXI.--MALE, FEMALE, AND YOUNG.
This species, which, although smaller, bears a great resemblance to the
Great Red-breasted Rail or Fresh-water Marsh-hen, is met with in most parts of
the United States at different seasons. Many spend the winter within our
southern limits, and I have found them at that time in Lower Louisiana, the
Floridas, Georgia, and the Carolinas. In the western country some have been
known to remain until severe frost came on, and there they usually stay to a
much later period than in our Middle Districts, from which they generally retire
southward in the beginning of October. During spring and summer, I observed
some in different places from the shores of the Wabash river in Illinois, to
those of the St. John's in the British province of New Brunswick. In the latter
district, they were considered extremely rare birds by the inhabitants, some of
whom brought me a few as great curiosities. Farther north, I neither saw nor
heard of any; but on the borders of Lakes Erie and Michigan, they breed in
considerable numbers, as well as near our maritime districts.
In its habits the Rallus virginianus is intermediate between the R.
crepitans and Orlygometra carolinus: it obtains its food as well in salt-water
marshes as in fresh meadows, watery savannahs, and the borders of ponds and
rivers. The latter situations, however, seem to suit it best during summer; but
whenever both kinds of places are combined, or near each other, there you are
sure to meet with it.
The time of breeding varies according to the latitude of the place. I have
found the female sitting on her eggs in the beginning of March, a few miles from
New Orleans; in Kentucky, near Henderson, in April; about a fortnight later near
Vincennes, in Illinois; and from the 10th of May to the middle of June, in the
Middle and Eastern States. The males usually arrive at the breeding-places a
week or ten days before the females. They travel silently and by night, as I
have ascertained by observing them proceed singly and in a direct course, at a
height of only a few feet, over our broad rivers, or over level land, when their
speed is such as is never manifested by them under ordinary circumstances.
Their movements can be easily traced for fifty yards or so during nights of
brilliant moonshine, when you see them passing with a constant beat of the
wings, in the manner of a Green-winged Teal. As soon as they arrive at their
destination, they may be heard emitting their cries about sunset, occasionally
through the night, and again with increased vi,our at the dawn of day, as if
expressing their impatience for the arrival of their companions. The love-notes
of this species have some resemblance to those of the Clapper Rail, but now and
then are changed for others something like crek, crek, creek, or creek, creek,
creek. Being expert ventriloquists, like their congeners, they sometimes seem
to be far off, when in fact they are within a few yards of you. One morning I
had the good fortune to witness their amatory gestures, which I will here try to
describe, that you may in some degree participate in the amusement which the
scene afforded me.
The sun had scarcely begun to send his horizontal rays over the lake, on
the margin of which I stood, revolving in my mind the many enjoyments which the
Author of nature has benignantly accorded to his creatures. The air was clear
and serene, and the waters spread before me without a ruffle on their surface.
The notes of the Rail came loudly on my ear, and on moving towards the spot
whence they proceeded, I observed the bird exhibiting the full ardour of his
passion. Now with open wings raised over its body, it ran around its beloved,
opening and flirting its tail with singular speed. Each time it passed before
her, it would pause for a moment, raise itself to the full stretch of its body
and legs, and bow to her with all the grace of a well-bred suitor of our own
species. The female also bowed in recognition, and at last, as the male came
nearer and nearer in his circuits, yielded to his wishes, on which the pair flew
off in the manner of house-pigeons, sailing and balancing their bodies on open
wings until out of sight. During this exhibition, the male emitted a mellow
note, resembling the syllables cuckoe, cuckoe, to which the female responded
with the kind of lisping sound uttered by young birds of the species when newly
Excepting our Little Partridge, I know no small bird so swift of foot as
the Virginian Rail. In fact, I doubt if it would be an easy matter for an
active man to outstrip one of them on plain ground; and to trust to one's speed
for raising one among the thick herbage to which they usually resort, would
certainly prove fallacious. There they run to a short distance, then tack
about, and again scud away in a lateral direction, so as to elude the best dog,
or if likely to be overtaken, rise on wing, fly with dangling legs eight or ten
yards, drop among the weeds, and run off as swiftly as before. Notwithstanding
all this, I managed to secure a good number of them by means of a partridge net,
setting the wings of that apparatus at very obtuse angles, and calling them by
imitating the lisping notes of the female from some distance beyond the bag of
the net. Now and then I found them too cunning for me, as, on discovering that
the wings of the net were in their way, they would get over it in the same
manner as that in which a sailor mounts the shrouds of a ship. Our Common Coot
uses the same artifice.
The nest of the Virginian Rail is not easily found after incubation has
commenced, for then the male, contrary to the habits of most birds, becomes
comparatively silent. and the female quite mute. At such times I have once or
twice almost trodden on one, which I should never have discovered, had not the
poor bird fluttered off in despair, employing all the artifices used by other
species on such occasions. It is placed on a small elevation formed by the
accumulation of the stalks of a large bunch of grasses, in the centre of which
some dry weeds are arranged to the height of two or three inches, with a very
shallow cavity. The eggs are four or five, seldom more than six or seven, and
resemble in colour those of the Rallus crepitans, although smaller, measuring an
inch and a quarter in length, by eleven-twelfths in breadth, and being rather
more rounded. The young are covered with a jet black down, and run after their
mother as soon as they make their escape from the egg;--at least I suppose this
to be the case, on account of my having caught some that seemed newly hatched.
The mother leads them with the greatest care among the long grass of the damp
meadows, or the weeds growing near the ponds, to which they resort at all times,
and particularly near the margins of pools or muddy streams, into which they run
and disperse on the least appearance of danger. When no water is near, the
little ones squat in silence, and await the call of their parent, to which all
at once answer, when they quickly collect once more around her.
This species is able to cling to, and climb along the blades of tall
grasses, even under water, when in danger, and is equally able to swim
gracefully to a considerable distance, as to alight on low bushes, in which
situation I have shot a few of them. When amid the broad leaves of
water-lilies, they walk and run on them with as much ease as the Gallinules.
When pursued, the Virginian Rail is, with great difficulty, put up, as I have
already mentioned, but when it is once on wing it may be shot by a very ordinary
gunner. It rises without noise, flies off with its legs dangling and its neck
stretched out, but seldom proceeds farther than twenty or thirty yards at a
time, unless when it has a stream to cross, or during its migrations. Like all
the other species with which I am acquainted, it feeds both by day and by night.
Its food consists of small slugs, snails, aquatic insects, worms, crustacea, and
the seeds of those grasses which grow in salt or fresh water marshes, in either
of which they reside and even breed. I have not been able to ascertain whether
they lay more than once in the season; but, on account of the comparatively
small number of this species, I am inclined to suppose that they seldom raise
more than one brood, unless their eggs have been destroyed, whether by
inundation or otherwise.
The Virginian Rail is not without enemies; and, although it manifests a
good deal of courage, and at times acts towards the Marsh Hawk in the same
manner as the Rallus crepitans, it seldom succeeds in its attempts, and on
several occasions I have seen that bird seize them as they attempted to strike
it with their bill and claws for the purpose of driving it away. The minx, the
garish, the snapping-turtle, and sometimes eels, destroy them, as well as the
Whilst at Charleston, in South Carolina, I frequently saw little strings of
these birds exposed in the market, at a very low price; and they are excellent
eating during autumn and winter. Their comparative scarcity, however, prevents
the gunner from searching after them with the same eagerness as he pursues the
Rallus crepitans, and to shoot a dozen in the course of a day may be considered
a remarkable feat. In that country, during the latter part of autumn, and in
winter, they are usually met with in the salt-marshes bordering the estuaries of
Like the two preceding species, the Virginian Rail has the power of
contracting its body to enable it to pass with more ease between the stalks of
strong grasses or other plants. When observed unseen, it frequently jerks the
tail upwards, in the manner of Gallinules, but the moment it notices any one of
its enemies, it droops the tail, lowers its head, and runs off. with the
quickness of thought.
The young of this species are at first of a black colour, like that of
Rallus crepitans and R. elegans; but, like those of the latter, attain the
rufous hue of the parent birds before the commencement of winter, although they
increase in size and improve in the depth of their tints probably for several
VIRGINIAN RAIL, Rallus virginianus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vii. P. 109.
RALLUS VIRGINIANUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 334.
LESSER CLAPPER RAIL, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 205.
VIRGINIAN RAIL, Rallus virginianus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 41;vol. v. p. 573.
Male, 10 1/2, 14 1/2. Female, 9 1/4.
Distributed through the country, and along the Atlantic shores, from Texas
to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; breeding in all the districts. Frequents
fresh and salt water. Returns southward in autumn, when great numbers spend the
winter from Carolina to Louisiana.
Bill longer than the head, slender, compressed, slightly curved, deep at
the base. Upper mandible with the dorsal line slightly curved, the ridge
flattish at the base, and extending a little on the forehead, convex and narrow
towards the end; a deep groove runs on either side parallel to the ridge for
two-thirds of the whole length; the edges inflected, with a very slight notch
close to the tip. Nostrils lateral, linear, direct, open and pervious. Lower
mandible with the angle very long, extremely narrow, the sides erect, slightly
convex, the edges inflected, the tip narrowed, the dorsal and marginal outlines
Head rather small, oblong, compressed. Neck rather long. Body slender,
much compressed. Feet rather long; tibia bare a considerable way above the
joint; tarsus of ordinary length, compressed, anteriorly covered with broad
scutella, posteriorly with smaller, and on the sides reticulated. Hind toe very
small and slender, middle toe longest, fourth considerably shorter, and but
little longer than the second; toes free, scutellate above, compressed,
granulate beneath. Claws of moderate length, arched, slender, much compressed,
acute, flat and marginate beneath.
Plumage rather stiff, compact, slightly glossed on the back. Feathers of
the head and neck short and blended; of the forehead with the shaft enlarged and
extended beyond the tip. Wings very short and broad; alula large; primaries
curved, broad, tapering, but obtuse, third longest, second very little shorter,
first and sixth about equal; secondaries broad and rounded. Tail extremely
short, much rounded, of twelve feeble rounded feathers; the upper and lower
tail-coverts nearly as long as the tail-feathers.
Bill dark brown, the lower mandible and edges of upper yellowish-brown.
Iris bright red. Feet yellowish-brown, tinged with olive; claws more dusky.
The general colour of the upper parts is deep brownish-black, with streaks of
light olive-brown; sides of the head dull bluish-grey, loral space of a deeper
tint; a brownish-orange line over the eye. Alula, primary quills, and tail,
blackish-brown; secondary quills like the back, but edged with greenish-brown,
smaller coverts dark chestnut. Throat reddish-white; fore neck and breast
bright orange-brown, approaching to yellowish-red; sides, abdomen, and lower
wing-coverts barred with brownish-black and white, the bands of the latter
narrower; tibial feathers dusky anteriorly, light reddish behind. Lower
tail-coverts each with a central brownish-black spot, the edges white, the tips
Length to end of tail 10 1/2 inches, to end of claws 13, extent of wings
14 1/4; bill 1 7/12; tarsus 1 5/12, middle toe and claw 1 9/12; wing from
flexure 4 1/2, tail 1 10/12.
The female is considerably smaller than the male, but resembles it in
colouring, only the dark tints of the upper parts are lighter, the chestnut of
the wings paler, and the lower parts of a less bright red.
Length 9 1/4.
Young bird fledged.
When fully fledged the young does not differ materially in colour from the
old, the tints being merely somewhat duller.
In colouring, this species is so nearly allied to R. elegans, that the
description of the one might pass very well for that of the other; the principal
difference being that the sides of the head are grey in the former, and dusky in
the latter. Of course, the difference in size and habits is sufficient to
prevent their being confounded together.
In an adult male, the width of the mouth is only 3 twelfths; on the palate
are two papillate rides, then anteriorly a single series of strong reversed
papillae, and towards the end a median ridge. The tongue is 1 inch 2 twelfths
in length, very slender, broadly channelled above in its whole length, horny
beneath, the tip narrow, thin-edged, and slightly slit. The oesophagus is 3
inches 10 twelfths long, 3 twelfths in width; the proventriculus ovate, 3 1/2
twelfths in breadth. The stomach is of moderate size, 10 twelfths long, 11
twelfths broad; its lateral muscles very large, as are the tendons, the lower
muscle prominent; the epithelium dense, bright red, with numerous longitudinal
rugae, being thus less adapted for grinding than that of the Sora Rail. The
contents are numerous fragments of small shells, and remains of insects. The
lobes of the liver are very unequal, the left 1 inch, the right 1 1/2 inches in
length. The intestine is 18 inches long, its average width 2 1/2 twelfths; the
coeca 1 inch 7 twelfths long, 2 1/2 twelfths in width, rounded at the end, 1
inch 10 twelfths from the extremity; the cloaca globular, 10 twelfths in
The trachea is 3 inches long, much flattened, from 1 1/2 twelfths to 1
twelfth in breadth; the rings feeble, divided as in the Sora Rail, and 120 in
number; bronchi moderate, of 15 half rings.
This species also I found in Texas, and from thence to the mouths of the