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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.


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.


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


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.


June through early August. The nest of a Virginia Rail is a platform of cattails and other wetland vegetation, often with surrounding live vegetation partially pulled down and woven into the nest to give it a partial canopy. They nest along the shores of water bodies or wetlands, typically on a dry spot adjacent to the water, or with the nesting platform constructed a few inches above the water in a very shallow part of a marsh. Females lay between 5 and 12 eggs, with both parents helping to incubate them. The young hatch after about 3 days, and typically leave the nest within a few days and start gathering their own food, while protected by the parents.


Metallic tdik-tdik-tdik-tdik.  Virginia Rails also have a unique grunting call that descends in tone and speed towards the end. I call it the Three Stooges "Nyuck-nyuck-nyuck-nyuck" call.


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

Similar Species:

Virginia Rail are unlikely to be a big identification challenge in South Dakota, as other similar rail species typically are not found in the state. Overall, the following species are the most likely to be potentially confused with a Virginia Rail.

King Rail - Rallus elegans Clapper Rail - Rallus longirostris Sora 12 - Porzana carolina Sora 3 - Porzana carolina
King Rail Clapper Rail Sora Sora

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, systematic surveys in the last several decades show numbers have recovered substantially.  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:

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.

Audio File Credits:

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
Virginia Rail 1 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 2 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 3 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 4 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 5 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 6 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 7 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 8 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 9 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 10 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 11 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 12 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 13 - Rallus limicolaVirginia Rail 14 - Rallus limicola