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Chris Ribic in 2006 wrote in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin, “Clap your hands in a wetland or slap your canoe paddle on the water in May or June, and you will likely hear the whinny of North America’s most common rail.” 

Ribic also reported that Wisconsin wetland bird researchers “have found that sora occur in higher densities in cat-tail or bulrush marshes compared to sedge/grass meadows.”  We search for them in shallow water areas.

Range map provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Range map provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

If you are lucky to see this small rail (that weighs less than three ounces) fly, it appears to be a weak flyer and only flies short distances.  But don’t be fooled by this illusion: soras migrate south hundreds of miles to the coastal marshes and central America for the winter. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports “Their population was stable between 1966 and 2015… they rely on wetland habitat that is dwindling due to urban and agricultural development”.  In Columbia County, we where we are conducting the Breeding Bird Atlas II surveys, we are finding soras in several thousand acres of restored Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) lands.

Columbia County atlasers have been out for the past four nights and are impressed with the number of soras found.  Mark and Brand Smith walked in a large WRP wetland for 1.5 miles from 8:45 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. They stopped seven times and played songs/calls of sora, Virginia rail, least bittern, and American bittern and were rewarded by hearing 22 sora and two American bitterns. Only one sora called before the recording of the call was played. (Click here to read about the “Proper Use of Playback in Birding”.)

Mark and Brand also stopped at two other sites along a road in a sedge meadow and found nine soras and three Virginia rails, all within 100 yards of the stops. 

Sora rail (check out its giant feet!). Photo by Becky Matsubara

Sora rail (check out its giant feet!). Photo by Becky Matsubara

We always thought that the best time for surveying for rails was after sunset and before sunrise. However, we learned that they can also call during the day when Brand was surveying for red-shouldered hawks by playing the hawk call and a sora answered. He then switched to calling rails and had replies from 8 Virginia and 11 soras. Impressive, since he was out in the early afternoon.

Our goal is to search the 18 priority atlas blocks in Columbia County for rails and bitters in the next month. Graham searched all the rail habitat (less than five acres) in the Arlington CE block and was lucky to hear a sora that was calling within 100 yards of the interstate.

Mark and Graham recently conducted a waterfowl count at Goose Pond and flushed four sora rails. On May 16, they conducted a rail count on a beautiful spring night with a lot of frogs and toads calling, and two males responded to the calls. They will survey again in a week and if they hear the rails call, the species will be upgraded to “probably nesting” in the Breeding Bird Atlas II project.

We encourage you to check out “rail” wetlands and see what you can find. Two locations in Jefferson County to explore are Zeloski Marsh (purchased by Madison Audubon and donated to the DNR) and Rose Lake/Dorothy Carnes Park (donated to Jefferson County) near Fort Atkinson. Look for shallow waters with cattails, bullrushes, and marshy habitat. You might get lucky enough to hear that magical whinny.

We are always looking for help with the atlas and welcome rail surveyors ( or you can help with the DNR survey for Secretive Marsh Birds including rails. There are 13 open routes within Madison Audubon’s chapter boundaries.

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol