This unusually cooperative king rail treated birders to fine
views last year at Montrose Point in Chicago. The bird was
 spotted multiple times from May to July. Photo by Jim Hully.
Phantom birds of the marsh

(published 8-15-19)

I much prefer living birds to dead ones, but there are times when a cotton-filled specimen is just fine. Besides, if not for the Field Museum, I might never see a black rail.

Last month I visited the museum’s recently opened John James Audubon exhibit in the Brooker Gallery, a small space on the upper level. Then, as if pulled by magnetic force, I floated back downstairs to the Hall of Birds. I had a date with the rail family.

My curiosity about rails was heightened in July at a DuPage Birding Club meeting. The speaker, Stephanie Beilke from Audubon Great Lakes, presented “A Rare Peek at Rails.” Her talk included profiles of the seven rail species found in Illinois, plus an update on what her organization is doing to aid conservation of these famously secretive marsh birds.  

Beilke noted that rails are generally believed to be in decline—not a stretch, considering that so many bird species are. But rails are extremely difficult to study, making population trends hard to measure.  In the case of yellow rail, a “grail bird” for watchers like me, there’s some debate about the species being rare or just rarely seen.

One thing is sure: When you see a rail, you feel lucky. They are most active at night and prefer dense vegetation. Except in migration, they seldom fly. Rails are far more often heard than seen.

Birders, of course, thrive on the exceptions. Last year, in broad daylight, a king rail was spotted multiple times at Montrose Point in Chicago. It showed well, rewarding dozens of lifer-seeking bird nerds. (Sadly, I was not among them).

King rail is so named because it’s the largest North American rail. The smallest and hardest to see is black rail. I’d heard the latter is no larger than a well-fed sparrow and wanted to see for myself at the Field. Now I believe.

As Beilke pointed out, the rail family is quite diverse. The world’s 134 species use many kinds of habitat, not just wetlands. Sizes and bill shapes vary widely. On the surface, king and black rails do not appear related, and the duck-like American coot is a rail, too.

There are some things, however, that most rails have in common: long legs and oversized feet, perfect for scurrying through the weeds; and a preference for staying low and out of sight.

To see a rail, your best bet is to find a wetland with muddy edges. Be alert, because rails will sometimes step into view, like the Montrose king rail. Once, at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, I witnessed several Virginia rails foraging on a wide mudflat. Rails are not always shy, especially when hungry.  

Virginia rail and sora are the most widespread species in our region. At this year’s Spring Bird Count in DuPage County, birders found 23 Virginia rails (a new record) and 60 sora—numbers that speak well for the quality of our local wetlands.

Many years ago, I saw my first Virginia rail in downtown Chicago, on a sidewalk. It was having a bad migration day but seemed healthy.    
Sora, too, can turn up in odd places. In 1997, I found one exploring the shrubbery in our townhouse courtyard, also in Chicago. I was so new to birding that I first thought it was a small chicken. What a yardie!

I’ve since observed sora many times, for it’s truly an abundant swamp bird. So abundant, in fact, that 31 states consider it fair game for hunters.

Yellow rail, a species few birders ever
experience, dropped by Wrigley Field
without a ticket in April 2015.
 Photo by Houston Furgeson.
I suggest going online and listening to the sora’s distinctive call. You’ll often hear it around wetlands, particularly at dawn and dusk.  

At the extreme other end of the rarity scale are black and yellow rails, two species I’ve yet to see or hear. They are among the stealthiest birds on the planet.

I’ll always envy Wrigley Field patron Houston Furgeson, who found a wayward yellow rail under his seat on April 18, 2015. Thankfully, he snapped a picture and shared it.   
That was freakish. For a better idea of scarcity, consider Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville, home to some wonderful wetland habitat in addition to open grassland. As volunteer site steward, Joe Suchecki has been monitoring the birdlife at Springbrook for 24 years. During that time, he’s encountered yellow rail only twice, in 2008 and 2016. He knows of one other reliable record, from 2017.

Suchecki’s only black rail came in May 2000, a bird discovered by Bob Fisher. Both men, and others, heard the rail’s unmistakable voice. Fisher detected a second black rail five years later, also at Springbrook.
The rarest and smallest North American rail, shown here at the
Field Museum, measures just six inches. 
Just locating a black rail is a tall order. Seeing one may be the most challenging assignment a birder could receive.  
Indeed, for visibility, rails can make owls seem downright conspicuous. For black and yellow rails, think elusive, then multiply by 10. There are coastal regions of the United States where your chances for success are better than the Midwest.

For me, an exciting aspect of birding is just knowing that birds like these are out there. They are real and possible, prizes of the marsh to be savored upon every encounter.