By Gail Cleveland
Even though I have been watching birds for more than 25 years, I can bring to mind most instances when I have seen the more elusive members of the family Rallidae (coots, rails, crakes and gallinules). I remember seeing my first Virginia Rail in a marshy area in the lower Flathead Valley. After hearing a long sequence of pig-like grunts, I scanned the area with my binoculars, only to realize that the small, orange-breasted, long-billed bird was silently standing right below me outside the car door. I remember lying on my stomach in northern Thailand, trying not to make a sound as a local restaurant owner called in the endemic Black-tailed Crake using bread crumbs. But, possibly, my favorite rail is the Sora, the most common and widely distributed rail in North America. I love his whinny.
Some Rallidae members like coots and moorhens are prolific swimmers and spend most of their time in open water. Soras, on the other hand, tend to stick to the reeds, cattails and muddy areas of marshes and lakesides. Therefore, catching a glimpse of a secretive Sora is a memorable occasion. My first was at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana. As my husband and I stood on an observation platform over a marshy area, a small brown bird with a yellow beak surrounded by black walked out of the cattails and back in for a two second view. “Did you see that? It was a Sora!”
Soras are predominantly monogamous, with both parents taking part in the raising of the young. The female lays 8 to 13 eggs in a small saucer-shaped nest of reeds and grasses, usually with surrounding plants forming a canopy above it. The young hatch at different times, making it possible for one adult to tend the young while the other incubates on the nest. Although the chicks are precocial, the adults feed and look after the young for approximately four weeks.
Soras are omnivores, eating a variety of crustaceans, spiders, grasshoppers and insects, as well as the seeds of plants like sedges and bulrushes. In the eastern United States, they are known to eat wild rice and rice cutgrass. In early June in Yellowstone National Park, to my surprise, several Soras were out in the open on the edges of a flooding pond, picking off caterpillars as they ascended small bushes to avoid the rising water. They were too busy eating to care that my husband and I were there.
Even though Soras are rarely seen in flight, they migrate each fall to the southern states and as far away as South America and begin returning to their breeding grounds in April.
How do you know if a Sora is in a marshy area or a small pond with cattails? Listen. The Sora has a call which is said to sound like Sor-AH with the second note higher, but what I listen for is the descending whinny. Once you hear it, you won’t forget it. You can hear the Sora vocalizations by going to www.allaboutbirds.org, or for a short video that includes the whinny, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_WLUEmlcKA.
If you happen to observe more than two of these seldom seen, but fairly common, rails at one time, you can always brag that you’ve seen a whinny of Soras. You lucky birder!