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Virginia Rail Life History



Virginia Rails occupy shallow freshwater wetlands with tall stands of cattails and rushes. They need areas with standing water typically less than 6 inches deep with a muddy bottom. They are most common in wetlands with 40–70% coverage of tall emergent vegetation, mixed with open water, mudflats, and areas with matted vegetation. Although they are more often found in shallow freshwater areas, they do use deeper wetlands and saltmarshes. During the nonbreeding season, Virginia Rails use similar habitat, but may venture into more open areas.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Virginia Rails eat beetles, snails, spiders, flies, small fish, slugs, crayfish, and frogs. In the winter, they eat aquatic invertebrates as well as plant material and seeds. They probe the surface of muddy and silty-bottomed wetlands for prey typically at dawn and dusk.

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Nest Placement


Virginia Rails nest in wetland vegetation such as cattails and bulrushes. They build the nest on floating mats of vegetation at or just above the water's surface.

Nest Description

Males and females loosely weave vegetation together to form a basket. They often weave in vegetation from above to create a canopy over the nest. Nest construction takes the pair about 1 week.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4-13 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:1.1-1.3 in (2.9-3.4 cm)
Egg Width:0.9-1.0 in (2.2-2.5 cm)
Incubation Period:18-20 days
Nestling Period:3-4 days
Egg Description:

White or buff with sparse irregular gray or brown spotting.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered with black down with eyes open.

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Rails have strong legs and long toes that help them walk and run on floating mats of vegetation. A head on look at a rail reveals a thin body that helps it sneak through dense wetland vegetation. Virginia Rails make abrupt movements, flicking their tails as they walk, and tend to seek cover most of the time. They dive underwater and swim across wetlands on occasion. When they do fly between or within wetlands their flight is weak and short. Sustained flight occurs only during migration. Virginia Rails tend to be solitary year-round, but they do form monogamous pairs during the breeding season and vigorously defend their territories with grunting duets.

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Low Concern

Virginia Rails are common throughout their range, even if they aren't regularly seen. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, between 1966 and 2015 overall populations appear to have been stable, but the birds' secretive nature makes evaluating their abundance problematic. Partners in Flight rates the species a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means Virginia Rail is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. Like other wetland-dependent birds, loss of wetland habitat due to draining and development could affect their populations.

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Conway, Courtney J. (1995). Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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