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Soras heading south for the winter

English, like all languages, is continuously evolving, being nudged this way and that by whatever cultural and usage influences gain a foothold on our collective tongues. However, certain words and phrases stand up to the rigors of time. I started thinking about the number of age-old phrases in our lexicon involving birds and came away quite surprised. There are many. Crazy as a loon, silly as a goose, sing like a canary, stool pigeon, just to name a few.

Early last week I was working for a friend driving combine during the harvest of his soybeans. As I was passing back and forth across the field, a sora (Porzana carolina) kept appearing and running in front of the combine. It would run for about 100 yards before weakly flying over to the unharvested vines. This took place roughly a half dozen times before it figured out that the level of harassment was less in the area already gone over.

The sora is easily the most common bird in the group known as rails. Like all rails, it is small and secretive. I would guess that a great majority of the population has never seen one. A number of things account for this. One, it is small (about seven inches) and spends most of its time stealthily plodding in and around marshes and wetlands supported by long toes. Two, it rarely flies, especially during daylight hours. Three, it doesn't stand out among its surroundings, being quite cryptically colored.

When it does fly it's not a graceful exhibit. It is a slow, struggling effort - a sort of flying pear. Pilots would describe the bird as "heavily wing-loaded." Bird expert Pete Dunne says the sora "flies like the Wright Brothers."

Soras are chunky, short-tailed and have a short, thick, yellow bill (adults). The tail is quite often bobbed while walking, exposing white feathering underneath. Its face is black while the rest of its body consists of gray, white and brown feathers mixed in a way to camouflage itself quite effectively.

While not easily seen, the sora is quite readily heard. In fact, a person could scarcely spend much time near a cattail marsh and not hear the loud and long call of this bird. It is a high, descending whinny (we-he-he-ee-ee-er) given at almost any time of day. In spring it commonly sings a two note "ur-EEE."

Among the three rail species a person expects to find in North Dakota, the sora is by far the most common. A few years ago I asked a Sheyenne National Grassland biologist about these numbers. He said for every one yellow rail there are 20 Virginia rails. And for every 20 Virginia rails there are 100 soras. It's probably even higher than that.

This is the time of year when soras are heading south to wintering grounds, from the southern U.S. to northern South America. And it happens to be one of the many species that migrates at night. A study, done in 1962, points to the attendant downfall of this characteristic. A single September evening produced 57 dead soras around a television tower near Westport, Minn., victims of impact. I've even found a few dead ones along the streets of West Fargo through the years.

By the first frost the soras are about gone. But next spring they will be back in just about any piece of wetland in the state. With patience we will again have a chance to view these animals along the cattail edges. When alarmed though, the sora runs away with its body uniquely narrowed, squeezing between the reeds. One might say it looks "thin as a rail."