Adult. Note: gray face, reddish brown breast, and dark bill.
  • Adult. Note: gray face, reddish brown breast, and dark bill.
  • Juvenile
  • Adult. Note: gray face, reddish brown breast, and dark bill.

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Virginia Rail

Rallus limicola
The order Gruiformes comprises a diverse group of mostly aquatic or marsh-dwelling birds. Despite their wet habitat, members of this order do not have webbed feet, although in some groups their strong toes are slightly webbed or lobed. Of eleven families worldwide just two are represented in Washington:
This family is made up of wetland dwellers, most with long, unwebbed toes (coots' toes are lobed). Rails are typically elusive and cryptic, while coots are gregarious. Most family members are omnivores and use a variety of foraging techniques. The young are precocial and can walk, swim, and feed themselves shortly after hatching. Both parents help provide parental care for the young.
Fairly common resident.

    General Description

    The Virginia Rail is a medium-sized bird of both fresh and salt water marshes. It has a long, slightly decurved bill and a short, upturned tail. The body, legs, and bill are reddish in color, and the cheeks are gray. The flanks are banded black and white. Juveniles are blackish-brown above with black or gray mottled underparts.


    Virginia Rails are found primarily in freshwater marshes and less often in brackish marshes. They prefer a mixture of emergent vegetation and flooded openings where insects are abundant. In winter, Virginia Rails often move to salt marshes. However large numbers remain in fresh water marshes in winter. They are often associated with cattails.


    Virginia Rails are very secretive birds that are more likely to be heard than seen. They are most active and visible at dawn and dusk. The long bill is used to probe mud and shallow water for prey. Virginia Rails have a number of vocalizations that function as communication between mates and in territorial disputes. The male performs a courtship display, bowing and running around the female with his wings raised. Both sexes vigorously defend the nest and the young.


    Virginia Rails feed on a variety of aquatic insects such as beetles and flies. They also eat slugs, snails, earthworms, and small fish. Compared to Soras, Virginia Rails consume more animal food, but Virginia Rails will eat aquatic plants and seeds, especially in the fall and winter.


    Both sexes build the well-concealed nest, adding material as eggs are being laid and incubated. The nest is a loosely woven basket made of marsh plants with a living plant canopy. Virginia Rails also build several dummy nests near the active nest. The female lays 5-13 eggs, and both sexes incubate. Young develop very quickly and leave the nest 3-4 days after hatching. They can forage independently within 7 days of hatching. Both parents continue to defend the young after they leave the nest.

    Migration Status

    Most populations in North America are migratory, although some populations in the West are permanent residents. Spring migrants may arrive as early as late March. Virginia Rails migrate from mid-August through October. Many birds winter west of the Cascades, and a few may occasionally attempt to winter in eastern Washington.

    Conservation Status

    The Virginia Rail is considered a game bird in much of North America, but is seldom hunted. Loss of wetland habitat has led to population decline in some areas, but numbers are thought to be relatively stable.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    In western Washington, breeding birds are found in lower-elevation fresh water marshes and some brackish marshes along the Puget Trough west to Ocean Shores. In eastern Washington, they occur throughout the Columbia Basin, Palouse, and Okanogan Valley, and north along large river valleys. Virginia Rails winter in both western and eastern Washington, but the numbers may vary year to year due to cold weather. The Union Bay Natural Area/Montlake Fill (King County) and North Creek Park in Mill Creek (Snohomish County) are good places to look for them.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastUUUFFFFFUUUU
    Puget TroughFFFFFFFFFFFF
    North Cascades UUUUUUU
    West CascadesRRRUFFFFFURR
    East CascadesRRRUUUUURRRR
    Okanogan UFFFFFFU
    Canadian Rockies RUUUUU
    Blue Mountains RUUUUURR
    Columbia PlateauRRRUFFFFUURR

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

    North America map legend

    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern