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Virginia Rail

Rallus limicola

Length: 9 to 10 inches Wingspan: 14 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: Long bill, rich cinnamon below, gray cheeks, crisp black and white barring on flanks

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicolaUnlike other similar Rails, the Virginia Rail is a rather common breeding bird in South Dakota.  Like other Rails, however, they are more often heard than seen.  They prefer to stay hidden in marsh vegetation, and are typically found in cattail marshes in South Dakota.  When disturbed, they will almost often move away on foot, and with their long toes and compressed bodies, they are able to maneuver very well in the thick vegetation.  While typically not flying once they reach their summer breeding grounds, they are actually relatively strong fliers, and are very long-distance migrants. In South Dakota, when Virginia Rails are found, typically you also will be able to find Sora.

Habitat: Uses a variety of shallow fresh- and brackish-water habitats, provided dense cover is available.  They will also use saltwater marshes during the winter.  During migration, they have the odd tendency to occasionally show up in almost any habitat.

Diet: Eats a great many aquatic insects and insect larvae.  Also eats mollusks and crustaceans, earthworms, small fish, and seeds of aquatic plants.

Behavior: Typically forages by moving through wetland vegetation, plucking insects and other food items from the ground or foliage.  They will also often probe in mud or shallow water for food.

Nesting: June through early August

Song: Metallic tdik-tdik-tdik-tdik.  Click here to listen to the Virginia Rail's song.

Migration: Summers throughout most of the western U.S., the northern half of the eastern U.S., and southern Canada.  Winters along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts, as wells as locally in the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Central America. 

Interactive eBird map: Click here to access an interacive eBird map of Virginia Rail sightings

Migration - Special Note: Birders in the Black Hills area have recently made a very interesting discovery.  Starting in the winter of 2003/2004, they found Virginia Rails in at least 3 different locations north of the Black Hills, and now in many subsequent winters as well.  Note that most of the literature shows them wintering near the U.S. coasts, or in the extreme SW or SE part of the U.S., but nowhere near South Dakota.  It's a potentially important finding, and certainly an interesting one. 

Similar Species: King Rail, Clapper Rail

Conservation Status: Numbers are undoubtedly much lower than they were prior to European settlement of the continent, as much of their wetland habitat was drained or otherwise destroyed. While numbers declined in the 20th century, they have perhaps rebounded since then.  They are found over a very broad geographic region, and are common in parts of their range. The IUCN considers the Virginia Rail to be a species of "Least Concern"

Further Information: 1) WhatBird - Virginia Rail

2) Audubon Field Guide - Virginia Rail

3) BirdWeb - Virginia Rail

Photo Information: July 4th, 2006 -- Near Tea in Lincoln County -- Terry Sohl

Additional Photos: Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Virginia Rail photos.


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Range Map - Virginia Rail
South Dakota Status: Common summer resident and migrant.  Accidental in winter (see migration notes in text above).

Additional Virginia Rail Photos 
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
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