- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
Regular breeding resident and migrant; occasionally a rail is spotted during the winter months in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Virginia Rail was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Found throughout most of southern Canada and the northern United States, where it extends as far south as New England in the east, the Great Lakes in the Midwest, and west to California, northern New Mexico, and Arizona. The Virginia Rail is sparsely distributed throughout its breeding range (Figure 1).
Ranked a species of Moderate Concern by the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan, with a Continental Concern Score of 9/20 assigned by Partners in Flight; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Short- to medium-distance migrant wintering along the southern coast of the United States and in northern Mexico.
Probes mud and shallow waters to feed on aquatic invertebrates, small fish, frogs, and aquatic plants.
Woven platform and overhanging canopy; depending on the nest’s height, a small ramp also may be constructed. Several dummy nests are built that may serve as sites for feeding, resting, and brooding the young.
As early as 1892, Dr. Hatch considered the Virginia Rail to be “generally distributed across the country” where suitable wetlands were present. Roberts (1932) also described the species as a statewide summer resident, noting that it wasn’t nearly as abundant as the Sora, with which it shared its nesting habitat. Although the Virginia Rail’s distribution was presumed to be widespread, nesting records for this secretive marshland species were scant and limited to just five counties in the southern, central, and western regions of the state: Hennepin, Isanti, Jackson, Kittson, and Polk Counties.
In the following years, nesting reports accumulated from scattered sites throughout the state, including locations in Cass, Otter Tail, and Sherburne Counties. The first confirmed nesting report in northeastern Minnesota was an observation of three nests in a wetland community on Minnesota Point in Duluth (Hero 1938).
When Green and Janssen (1975) wrote their updated account of the species’ status, the Virginia Rail had been documented breeding as far north as the city of Virginia in St. Louis County but was not found further east in Lake or Cook Counties. It also was considered scarce in the far northern counties of north-central Minnesota. Several years later, Janssen (1987) reported the first breeding record from northern Lake County. The species, however, remained uncommon throughout most of the forested regions of the state. Where nesting had been confirmed, 21 counties were delineated since 1970. By 1998, Hertzel and Janssen added another 3 counties to the list, all within the species’ primary range, which excluded Cook, Lake, and northern regions of St. Louis and Koochiching Counties.
As of 2016, field biologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey have recorded a total of 145 breeding season locations for the Virginia Rail, including 2 in Cook County. The bird was largely absent from southeastern Minnesota except in the Weaver Bottoms region of the Mississippi River. It also was absent from large portions of east-central Minnesota and from the heavily cultivated Red River valley and upper Minnesota River valley (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
During the MNBBA, observers tallied a total of 377 Virginia Rail records from 6.5% (307/4,758) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 6.2% (146/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was confirmed in only 14 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 70 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were confirmed breeding in 12 counties. Seven counties were additions to the list Hertzel and Janssen published in 1998: Blue Earth, Carver, Chisago, Clay, Meeker, Sherburne, and Washington. Overall, the species was sparsely and irregularly distributed throughout the state, with pockets of high abundance in a number of localities, most notably in west-central Minnesota.
The species’ distribution has not noticeably changed in the past 100 years. Roberts (1932) presumed the Virginia Rail was found statewide, but it wasn’t until the later years of the twentieth century that his supposition was proven true. Although nesting has yet to be confirmed in Cook County, the species’ presence during the summer months certainly is a strong indication that nesting is probable. It is unlikely that these recent records in northeastern Minnesota represent a range expansion. Rather, they likely are the result of more intensive inventory efforts. Other atlas efforts in the upper Midwest, including Canada, have noted that the species’ distribution remained the same between atlases and appeared unchanged from historical accounts (Cadman et al. 2007; Chartier et al. 2013; Rodewald et al. 2016).
Little is known about many aspects of the species’ life history. A two-year study of the Virginia Rail and the Sora conducted in the early 1950s in Ramsey County remains one of the most cited works in North America on both species (Pospichal and Marshall 1954). Equally important work was conducted on both species by Kaufmann in the 1960s in Iowa and Minnesota (Kaufmann 1971, 1977, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1989).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.