ALWAYS IN SEASON/ Mike Jacobs: The sora surprises again and again

The sora is a surprising bird. Here is what The American Museum of Natural History, in "Birds of North America," has to say about the bird: "Despite being the most widely distributed rail in North America, the sora is rarely seen." Sora are deniz...

Illustration by Mike Jacobs
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The sora is a surprising bird.

Here is what The American Museum of Natural History, in "Birds of North America," has to say about the bird:

"Despite being the most widely distributed rail in North America, the sora is rarely seen."

Sora are denizens of freshwater marshes. Yet one showed up last week on a porch in Grand Forks.

The word "rail" in the museum's bird book refers to the biological family to which the sora belongs. Several other members of this family occur in North Dakota, all of them more elusive than the sora.


In our area, these would be Virginia rail, yellow rail and king rail.

The last of these is extremely secretive, active only at night and best located by the noise that it makes. The former is more likely to be encountered, but only marginally so.

That leaves the sora as the conspicuous member of its tribe.

I'm pretty confident that I could find a sora if I set out to do so. I've found them frequently enough in Grand Forks County and in other places in North Dakota and northern Minnesota.

I will say, however, that no sora has ever come to me.

Its unexpected appearance inside city limits is only the latest of the sora's surprises.

To begin with, the sora is a surprising-looking bird. It looks like a chicken-but with long legs and outsized feet. The legs and feet are bright yellow.

The face is gray, too, with a bit of brown behind the eye and a patch of black in front of the eye. The bill is as yellow as the legs and feet. The top of the head is more brown than chestnut, though it can vary a bit. The back is streaked with black. The tail is short and often held upright.


This description hardly does justice to the lopsided look of the bird, however. The sora appears front loaded-the better, of course, to spot whatever edibles it encounters within the vegetation it encounters as it makes its way through the marsh. The size of the feet, the length of the toes and the position of the legs, far back on the body, all help the sora in this undertaking. The toes help the bird reach for and lift up vegetation, the better to find food.

Strong swimmers

Walking is not the sora's only means of locomotion. A sora swims well, often with a head bobbing motion. Some ducks do this, too, but the sora shouldn't be confused with any duck, since its bill is rather thick vertically and rather pointed horizontally. Duck bills tend to be flat and rounded.

It's possible that a swimming sora might be confused with an American coot-a fairly close relative. But coots are black overall. They seldom walk, though they might be seen poised in a road ditch or pond bank ready to launch into the water.

Nor are coots especially secretive, though they hurry to hide if they are disturbed.

By contrast, sora tend to remain hidden most of the time.

Its voice betrays the sora, however, and this is another surprising thing about the bird. The call of the sora is remarkable. The Natural History Museum's guide book describes it this way: "a long, high and loud, descending horse-like whinny."

Here is the book's transliteration (so to speak): "Ko-wee-hee-hee-hee-hee."


That's not quite all of it, though. Soras also have an up slurred whistle.

Of course, it's hard to render bird calls on paper. My best advice is to find yourself an overgrown wetland, cut the engine of your vehicle, roll down the window and listen.

The best time to do this is just about dawn or just about dusk. Sora, like many other birds, are more active at these times.

Other rails

The sora is the best introduction to the rails of the Northern Plains. Finding one could well whet your appetite for the others.

In "Breeding Birds of North Dakota," Robert E. Stewart lists king rail as a "hypothetical" breeder. The Virginia rail he rates "common" in north central North Dakota and in the southern part of the state east of the Missouri River. He calls the yellow rail "local," and that is appropriate because it has rather specialized breeding habitat, some of it found in Grand Forks County. The sora he calls "common" through most of the state east of the Missouri River, but only "fairly common" in the Red River Valley.

Still another rail species, the black rail, has been recorded only once in the state, in 1905. Chances of seeing a black rail around here are-well-less than the chances of seeing a sora on a porch in Grand Forks.

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