The Virginia Rail is a secretive freshwater marsh bird that is more often heard than seen. A brief glimpse of a reddish bill and legs, banded black-and-white flanks, and a short, upturned tail is often all that is afforded observers. A habitat generalist, this species probes mudflats and shallow water with its long, slightly decurved bill searching for invertebrates, small fish, and the occasional seed. Vagrancy and generalist habits allow it to exploit a highly ephemeral niche. A laterally compressed body, flexible vertebrae, and modified feather tips in anterior regions of the head (to prevent feather wear) are adaptations for passing through dense marsh vegetation. Virginia Rails are agile on their feet and most often escape danger by running, but they may also dive and swim, using their wings to propel themselves underwater.
Within its range the Virginia Rail is restricted to isolated wetland areas, but can be locally abundant if habitat conditions are favorable. Like other North American rails, it is monogamous, territorial, and fecund. Duetting grunt vocalizations—specialized calls used in pair-bonding—signal the start of the nesting season each spring. Adults build numerous “dummy” nests within their territories in addition to their primary nest. Precocious young may leave the nest immediately after hatching, and both parents share in caring for them. Virginia Rails undergo two annual molts, including a simultaneous wing and tail molt in late summer that renders them flightless.
Although the Virginia Rail is considered a game species throughout North America, hunters seldom take it. Wetland loss has caused population declines, but the species is now considered relatively stable (Conway et al. 1994a). It often coexists with Soras (Porzana carolina) in marshes throughout its range. Comparisons between these two rails are common and allow insights into evolutionarily-recent life history adaptations.
Because it is difficult to observe and attracts little interest from hunters, the Virginia Rail has been little studied. Detailed information on many aspects of its life history is still lacking.