Not so with the Sora. It is a secretive bird. Soras are marsh-dwellers. They have a distinctive call, but you most likely have never heard it. You may have never even heard of a Sora.
If you go on a birding trip to the salt marshes along the coast and spend a day in the field, you may be lucky enough to see a Sora. But to find one casually in your own back yard is surprising. At least, I was surprised to find one.
On a recent morning, we were doing a routine bird count here on our farm. We were checking the trees around the small pond for warblers. Our dog waded out into the water until she was neck-deep (only about eight inches for a basset hound), and then she strolled into the cattails. She seemed to be on the trail of something. Suddenly a bird flew up out of the cattails and into the weeds on the other side. It had stubby wings and large dangly feet. It looked like a small chicken in the brief glimpse we had of it.
We only saw it for a second, but we both thought: Rail.
Rails are a group of marsh birds that, when amongst reeds and cattails, become almost invisible. They are slender from side to side and are marked with vertical striping. Their camouflage is so good that you can’t tell a stripe from a stem.
But what rail was this? There are several small rails that could conceivably be in our pond. We needed a second look.
We waited quietly while the basset continued to pick her way through the cattails. Before long, she reached the place we had seen the rail go down. Again, the bird flew feebly to another section of the pond.
This time we saw what we needed to see. The beak was bright yellow and somewhat chicken-like. It was a Sora, a common but seldom seen bird of North American marshes.
Rails are built to be able to creep through the reeds and grasses of a marsh without shaking a stem. Their bodies are “laterally compressed,” meaning that they are quite skinny when seen from the front or back. In fact, the expression “skinny as a rail” originated with observers of these birds. (And you thought it was a fence rail!)
Some rails have long bills for probing in the mud, but the Sora has a short bill. The little bill is used to pick up small seeds and aquatic invertebrates at the edge of the water.
I read up on the Sora and found that, although they conceal themselves in the vegetation, they can be readily flushed. Of course, a dog is handy for this, but birders say just clapping your hands will do the trick. At the very least, a Sora is likely to call in response.
The standard call of a Sora is “a whinny of 12 to 15 sweet clear notes, running together on a descending scale until the last six or so notes become slower and monotone.” Wintering birds are said to call surprisingly often in Texas. But I couldn’t recall having heard one.
I went to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (www.allaboutbirds.org) to play the calls of the Sora. The whinny is especially pleasing to hear. In fact, I may have heard Soras call many times, but I always thought I was hearing American Coots calling. It is a jungle-y, marshy sound; well worth a listen.
And I also found out that the Sora makes a two-note call, a kind of “sor-AH” with the second note higher in pitch. That must be how it got its odd name.
Soras are migratory birds in Texas. They typically breed in the northern United States and well up into Canada. Before the first frost ices over their wetland habitats, the Soras fly south. For some individuals, it is a long journey over the Gulf of Mexico to South America.
Some Soras spend the winter in South Texas. They can be in the coastal marshes, but it is also likely they will be in small fresh water ponds.
But come spring, they head back north to fresh water marshes all over the continent. They build nests among the cattails, suspending the cup-like nest just above the water. A female lays up to 18 eggs!
I am not likely to find a Sora’s nest, but wouldn’t it be exciting? Meanwhile I will be happy to find a Sora in my pond. Check out your environs. Maybe you have a Sora too!