Birds to rail about

Coots, crakes, and rails need the healthy wetlands you conserve
By Samuel James Adams

Winter is almost here. Raptors are soaring above Lynch Canyon. Mountain Plovers are flocking towards the Central Valley. And stunning migratory waterfowl dapple the estuaries and coasts of Solano County: buffleheads with their bright snowy feathers, western grebes with elegant necks, the goldeneyes with their iridescent green heads.

And the coots…well, they’re back too.

Living in Benicia, I was guilty of thinking Fulica Americana didn’t migrate at all. I just seemed to see coots more often when other shorebirds were around.

American Coot : Wikimedia commons

But during the warmer months, these humble birds—dubbed “mud hens” elsewhere in the nation—are found north of British Columbia. They overwinter in Central America, the Caribbean, and up and down the West Coast. Their eastern range extends as far as New York. Most coots are short-range migrants, but their nighttime flights are shrouded in an air of rarely documented mystery; according to evidence from aircraft damage, they reach altitudes as high as 5,000 feet.

Minor league baseball franchise the Toledo Mud Hens might not be named for the bird’s athletic prowess—the stadium was in the marshes of Ohio’s Great Black Swamp, prime coot country—but these birds are no slouches.

Even so, it can be hard to imagine such epic journeys for the coots you see at the shoreline drifting in little groups, bobbing their round heads, and slurping up vegetation. With plump, umbrella-black bodies, white beaks, and dark red eyes that vanish from view depending on lighting, their simple forms offer model subjects for someone just beginning to draw. They are…unimposing animals. But there is more going on under the surface than you’d suspect, as anyone who has seen them wade out of the water on their giant, knobby dinosaur feet will know.

Coots are one of the 150 species of birds in the Rallidae family and the most numerous and prevalent of the rails you’ll find in local marshes and waterways. The visibility of coots is atypical. Rails have a reputation for being more heard than seen; the family’s most elusive members are the stuff of birders’ dreams. (Coots are sneaky too; they practice brood parasitism, leaving their eggs in the nests of other birds.)

The Rallidae family consists of small to medium-sized terrestrial and semi-amphibious birds. Rails inhabit every continent but Antarctica. Their numbers include flightless animals (evolved from “vagrant” species blown off course by alterations in the earth’s magnetic fields) and long-haul fliers. Some are common. Others are direly endangered.

In marshes and wetlands, rails can be important indicators of an ecosystem’s overall health. Many rails eat benthic organisms (creatures and plants living among the sediment at the bottom of creeks and estuaries), and researchers at Eastern Illinois University are using the tiny contaminants to paint a bigger picture of habitat quality.

Coots in the water : Samuel James Adams

Clapper Rails (Rallus longirostris) can potentially serve as an indicator species of estuarine marsh health because of their strong site fidelity and predictable diet consisting predominantly of benthic organisms. These feeding habits increase the likelihood of individuals accumulating significant amounts of contaminants associated with coastal sediments.

The species described below were identified by birders in the field and documented in the eBird lists for Rush Ranch Open Space. Because of the rails’ elusiveness, audio identification systems like the Merlin app help here. You may not see some of these birds, but the wetlands you love would not be much poorer without them.

Sora Bird : Michael L. Baird

Porzana Carolina

Also called Sora Crakes, Soras have appealing blue-gray faces that are seldom observed considering that this small bird is the most abundant and widespread North American rail. A specialized gizzard helps Soras digest snails and hard-shelled invertebrates. A keen birder identified a Sora by call at Rush last winter during the Backyard Bird Count for Kids put on by International Bird Rescue. Early mornings or late nights offer the best times for observation, but it’s a challenge: they move at the base of cattails and other marsh vegetation, sometimes following runways made by mice. A similar but tinier bird, the black rail, is mouse-sized and more elusive.

Common Gallinule
Gallinula Galeata

The most common rails in other parts of the country, Gallinules have charcoal-gray bodies and red facial shields with yellow beaks. In swamps, Gallinules hop from one lily pad to another like an action hero jumping rooftops in pursuit of a villain. Fittingly, this bird carries a fierce reputation for interspecies aggression during breeding season. Its European relative, the Moorhen, looks almost identical.

Virginia Rail : Solano Land Trust

Virginia Rail
Rallus limicola

Leave it to one of the smallest birds listed to be the one with a picture in our photo database. Anyone who has participated in coastal cleanup knows it can be rough moving through the marsh; this bird has tough feathers on its forehead and a “laterally compressed body” shaped for moving through cattails, bulrushes, and other vegetation. Discreet, cinnamon colors and black striping help camouflage it in marshlands; anyone lucky enough to see one probably notices its red bill.

Fun fact: Virginia rails have the highest ratio of leg-muscle to flight-muscle of all birds.

Ridgway’s Rail : Wikimedia Commons

Ridgway’s Rail (formerly California Clapper Rail)
Rallus Osbsoletus

The renaming process of this bird is too complex to untangle here. Rusty-gray in color, the birds have powerful bills and special glands for consuming salt water. On the Atlantic coasts, Clapper birds derived their name from the applause-like call; the local species is similarly noisy. Sadly, habitat loss and fragmentation have made this the most endangered bird discussed here. Designated a new species in 2014, its name honors ornithologist Robert Ridgway, author of the 6,000-page tome The Birds of North and Middle America. He’s also, if we’re being honest, a guy who already had enough birds named after him.