Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

Rallus limicola
Population size
65-95 g
20-27 cm
32-38 cm

Virginia rails are small waterbirds found in the Americas. These birds remain fairly common despite the continuing loss of habitat, but are secretive by nature and more often heard than seen. They are also considered a game species in some provinces and states, though rarely hunted.


Virginia rails breed from Nova Scotia to Southern British Columbia, California, and North Carolina, and in Central America. Northern populations migrate to the southern United States and Central America. On the Pacific coast, some are permanent residents. Virginia rails live in wetlands; they prefer freshwater and brackish marshes but during winter may sometimes occur in salt marshes.

Virginia Rail habitat map

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Virginia rails are secretive birds; outside of the breeding season, they prefer to spend time singly. They move by walking, running, and hopping on floating mats of vegetation. They often run to escape predators, instead of flying. When they do fly, it is usually short distances or for migration. These birds can also swim and dive using their wings to propel themselves. Virginia rails are most active at dawn and dusk when they forage for food. They walk in shallow water probing with their bill in mud or among floating vegetation and also pick up food by sight. Virginia rails communicate with a number of calls, including a harsh 'kuk kuk kuk', usually heard at night. They also make grunting noises and in spring, they often make 'tick-it or kid-ick' calls.

Group name

Diet and Nutrition

Virginia rails are carnivores (insectivores). Their diet mainly includes insects and other aquatic invertebrates, like beetles, flies, dragonflies, crayfish, snails, and earthworms. These birds also eat aquatic animals like frogs, fish, and some small snakes. In the fall and winter, they supplement their diet with seeds and plant material.

Mating Habits

starts in May
20-22 days
2-3 weeks
4-13 eggs

Virginia rails are serially monogamous; they form pair bonds that break after the young become independent. Courtship usually starts around May. The male will raise his wings and run back and forth next to the female. Both sexes bow and the male feeds the female. Before mating, the male approaches the female while grunting. Both parents build the nest and care for the young, whereas only the male defends the territory. These birds nest near the base of emergent vegetation in areas with vegetation creating a canopy above the nest. The nest is built as the first egg is laid and consists of a basket of woven vegetation. It is made using plants like cattails, reeds, and grasses. These birds also build dummy nests around the marsh. The female lays a clutch of 4 to 13 white or buff eggs with sparse gray or brown spotting. They are incubated by both parents for a period of 20 to 22 days, in which the parents continue to add nesting material to conceal the nest. When the eggs hatch, the parents feed their young for 2 to 3 weeks. After this time the chicks become independent and are able to fly at around 25 days of age.


Population threats

Virginia rails are threatened by the loss of their wetland habitat mainly due to degradation, draining and development.

Population number

The IUCN Red List and other sources don’t provide the number of the Virginia rail total population size. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • To walk through dense vegetation, Virginia rails have evolved a laterally compressed body and strong forehead feathers adapted to withstand wear from pushing through vegetation.
  • Virginia rails have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle of all birds; these are 25% - 15% of body weight respectively.
  • Virginia rails have muscular legs that allow them to easily slip through dense vegetation and the long toes help to walk on floating vegetation.
  • Apart from the main nest, Virginia rails build numerous "dummy nests". Most probably it's a tricky way to save their clutch from predators.
  • Virginia rail chicks are born fully developed and can swim very soon after hatching.


1. Virginia Rail on Wikipedia -
2. Virginia Rail on The IUCN Red List site -

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