VIRGINIA RAIL  Rallus limicolaRallus limicola

Virginia Rails are secretive inhabitants of freshwater marshes where they probe mudflats and search shallow water, using their slightly decurved, red bills, to catch various invertebrates, small fish or even seeds. The bodies and plumages of these birds are adapted for easy movement through dense marsh vegetation, enabling these rails to run through dense emergent vegetation. They can also escape danger by diving and swimming underwater, using their wings to propel themselves (Conway 1994).

These monogamous and territorial rails announce the breeding season each spring with specialized  grunt calls, used in pair-bonding. Within their territories, adults build many dummy nests besides their breeding nest (Conway 1994).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work seasons of the TBBA project, observers found 4 confirmed, 2 probable and 2 possible breeding sites in the Panhandle and southern High Plains region  (see the region map in Lockwood and Freeman [2004]). Seyffert (2001) considers this rail a resident in the central Panhandle. Atlasers in Oklahoma did not find breeding evidence for this rail, but pre-1997 nesting records exist for the northern half of the state, most recently in 1961 (Reinking 2004)

Elsewhere in North America, Virgina Rails breed from the Pacific Coat across southern Canada and the northern Unite States to New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces and south  along the Atlantic Coast to North Carolina. These rails also breed in the western United States south to the Mexican border and in major wetland areas of the Great Plains. Outside the United States Virginia Rail populations are resident in Mexico, Guatemala and western South America. In winer most northern breeders move to the southwest United States, Florida, Mexico and the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts (Conway 1994, Howell and Webb 1995, Am. Ornithol. Union 1998, Paulson. 2005, Sauer et al. 2008).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. The Virginia Rails breeding in Texas are  residents. Adults with young have been found in late July, but dates are few (Oberholser 1974). In Arizona breeding evidence for these rails was found mostly in June and July (Burger 2005). In Colorado atlasers found these rails breeding from mid-May to mid-August (Pantle 1998). Virginia Rails are uncommon migrants statewide, more common along the coast, from mid-March to early May and September to early November. In winter they are uncommon to rare along the coast  (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

BREEDING HABITAT. In Arizona and Colorado about 90% of breeding evidence for Virginia Rails was found in the cattails, sedges and other emergent plants surrounding marshes, swamps, ponds and lakes. Soras (Porzana carolina) nest in similar habitats (Harrison 1979, Pantle 1998, Burger 2005).  Both sexes of Virginia Rails help build their nest within the emergent vegetation, either suspended, 5-17 cm (2-5 in) over, just touching or slightly submerged in shallow freshwater. Nests are built of cattails, coarse grass stems or similar materials, available near the nest site. The materials are loosely woven into a basket with an arch of live plant leaves bent over it. The average outside diameter of the nest is 17.3 cm (7 in), height 12.8 cm (5 in), inside diameter 11.7 cm (4.8 in) and cup depth 3 cm (1.2 in). Harrison (1979) and Conway (1994) have nest photos and these references  are the sources of this information.

In the nest the female usually lays 6-7 (range 4-13) smooth, buff to creamy white eggs, sparsely and irregularly spotted with brown. These eggs, laid one per day, are lighter colored, less heavily marked and less glossy than the eggs of Soras. Both sexes share incubation for 18-20 days, starting with the laying of the last or next-to-last egg. The precocial chicks, covered with glossy, black down, leave the nest 3-4 days after hatching and feed themselves when 7 days old. At 3-4 weeks they are adult-sized and reach adult weight at 6 weeks. Some pairs raise 2 broods per year (Harrison 1979, Conway 1994).

STATUS. The map in Oberholser (1974) shows 2 breeding records for Virginia Rails from the 1930s. In  the Panhandle only 2 counties show summer records. Seyffert (2001) now considers this rail an uncommon to locally common resident in the central Panhandle.  Lockwood and Freeman (2004) note scattered nesting records from various parts of  Texas, mostly in the western third of the state and suggest this may indicate a wider breeding range. Data from 99 North American Breeding Bird Survey routes suggest a small annual population increase in North America for the period 1980-2007 (Sauer et al. 2008). Since breeding of this rail is difficult to detect and may be irregular at any given location, Texas birdwatchers should be alert for visual or vocal evidence of this or other rails at wetlands with cattails or other emergent vegetation in spring or summer.

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2008)
Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

American Ornithologists’ Union. 1998. Checklist of North American birds, 7th ed. Am, Ornithol. Union, Washington, DC.

Burger, B. 2005. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola). In Arizona breeding bird atlas. pp. 164-165 (T. E. Corman and C. Wise-Gervais, eds.), University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Conway, C. J. 1995. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from:

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, New York.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Pantle, D. 1998. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola). In Colorado breeding bird atlas, pp. 156-157 (H.  E. Kingery, ed.), Colorado Bird Atlas Partnership, Denver.

Paulson, I. 2005. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola). In Birds of Washington: status and distribution. p 128 ( T. R. Wahl, B. Tweit and S. G. Mlodinow, eds.) Oregon State University Press, Corvallis.

Reinking, D. L. 2004. Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola). In Oklahoma breeding bird atlas, pp. 128-129 (D. L. Reinking, ed.). University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2008. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2007. Version 5.15.2008. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD <>

Seyffert, K. D. 2001. Birds of the Texas Panhandle.  Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

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