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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Secrecy marks rail family

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The sora is a fairly common bird, and it’s fairly easy to find. Still, it is seldom seen.

That’s because the sora is a specialist. It likes wet places with lots of cover.

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This it has in common with other members of its family, the rails, a large and mysterious group.

First the sora.

Think of it as a water chicken. It is roughly chicken-shaped, and it has longish legs like a chicken. It also has a chicken-like strut.

The sora has a number of peeps and clucks that sound a little like a chicken, too. The sora’s signature noise is nothing like a chicken, however. It is a kind of whinny: “Wheeeee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee.”

Unmistakable, really.

It also explains why the sora is heard more often than seen.

And that is why I was thrilled to see a sora on my expedition to find Say’s phoebe. I wrote about that search on June 29.

The sora was a bonus, a collateral or coincidental sighting. To see a sora and a Say’s phoebe in the same place is unusual. Say’s are birds of dry places and soras of very wet ones.

In this case, it was the phoebe that was out of place.

Probably, every shallow wetland has a pair of soras. Don’t expect them on deepwater lakes, though, nor on temporary wetlands.. Although they are freshwater birds, a bit of brackishness doesn’t deter them, as long as there’s cover.

The best way to spot a sora is to find a trail that crosses a wetland and then walk it. One such is the old railroad track through Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refugre northwest of Grand Forks.

Other back roads in Grand Forks County offer the same opportunity. Simply stop, get out of the car and walk.

And listen.

And peer into the morass.

Three other species of rails occur in our area. One is the American coot, a kind of anomaly in the family. It is an abundant and conspicuous bird.

Our other rails are much more elusive than the coot or the sora. The yellow rail, in fact, may be the most elusive of birds, skulking in dense vegetation, making its telltale clicking sound, like stones tapped together, and never making itself visible.

No, I’ve never seen one.

I’ve heard plenty.

They call at night, pretty much all night.

But so far, I haven’t developed an appetite for trudging through water to try to find the bird.

A fellow named William Burt did that, and he wrote a book called “Shadowbirds” about his search for yellow rails. It was published by Lyons and Buford in 1994.

A good part of Burt’s search took place in North Dakota, which is well known as yellow-rail country. He traced the activities of a minister named P.B. Peabody, who famously tracked yellow rails in Benson County and wrote about it for ornithological journals.

Burt had to go to Manitoba to find yellow rails, though.

Robert Stewart, in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” suggested that the habitat these birds prefer “could be described as quagmires.”

The other local rail is Virginia rail, a common nesting species here, despite its name. The Virginia rail isn’t particularly fussy about habitat; just about any wet area will do. Again, it depends on dense vegetation for cover.

 The Virginia rail, too, is a secretive bird, but not so obsessively so as the yellow rail. I’ve stumbled upon them several times, though I’ve never been successful in finding them when I wanted to.

In other words, for me, Virginia rail is an accidental species.

The rail family is one of the bird world’s success stories. There are about 130 species all together, and one or another of them occurs on every continent except Antarctica.

Interestingly, they are fond of isolated islands in all of the oceans, and there the family has developed extreme habitat specialization — a characteristic displayed also in mainland species such as our own yellow rail.

Some rails, especially island dwellers, do not fly.

This might not surprise someone familiar with the coot, which seems to be incongruous in the air. It is nevertheless a strong flier, capable of long-distance migration.

So it’s not surprising that its relatives, the rails, have become a cosmopolitan family.

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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