Rail Season

The orbit of my falconry is a long ellipse, mostly hidden from sight or thought from March to August, except for the minor husbandry of a molting hawk.

I feed Ernie in the afternoon and bring him inside at night to escape the mosquitoes and the raccoons. He bathes and preens and naps all day, unhurried and apparently as unconcerned about the approach of hunting season as I am.

Some Sunday mornings I drink coffee and read on the back porch where I can watch him work his feathers out, or raise one foot and then the other, or pull a wing down in a long, slow stretch.  Rouse. Yawn.  Wag his tail.  Preen again.

Otherwise, my days are hard to distinguish from those of my neighbors: Up early to the office, home late for supper, then sleep and dreaming not of hunting.

But the season comes, and I wake up with it.  Ernie responds.  The dog knows.  My family eats without me four days a week starting in September with the opening of rail season and through the end of February when rabbit closes.  In between, there is a lively, daily negotiation for free hours and trading trips to kids’ events and avoiding suddenly inconvenient work concerns.

If you are a hunter in your forties with a family of pre-teens and a hard-working spouse, you know the drill.  It’s all good.  It’s better than it would have been. You know that.

“A small, chicken-like marsh bird. Laterally compressed.” -The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Our rails are like quail with all the air sucked out of them.  They seem to me like tiny herons who always wanted to be game birds but never made the cut.  Still, they keep up appearances as best they can.  If you squint, you can see the snipe in them.

Local humor has it that rails arrive on the backs of migrating geese, and it’s true they are unlikely trans-continental travellers.  In the Fall you sometimes find their carcasses on cattle fences, stopped mid-flight at waist level by a strand of barbed wire.  One of my friends calls them “butt-draggers” for their typical posture in flight.  Also true.

But I love them.  I love to hunt them, catch them, eat them.  I love the fact that such a strange little bird has a place in the published tables of our migratory bird seasons.  Considering the rarity of finding another rail hunter, I am amazed by that.

The Louisiana bag limit is huge, 30 in the aggregate for the two larger species, Kings and Clappers, and 25 total for Soras and Virginias.  I guess that means I could haul 55 birds from the field each day, or something like 20 pounds of rail.

I wouldn’t do that, even if I could.  I don’t think anyone has done that since maybe the turn of the (last) century, when rails and marshlands were both much easier to come by.  But then I hunt with a bird of prey, and the daily bag for falconers is three, a trade-off for our extended season. If I could vote on it, I’d nudge that to something closer to 10, which would be a good day with two hawks and truly banner hunt with one.

The early weeks of our rail season are inhospitable to hunters and to human beings generally.  The air is wet and thick, still 90 degrees at 6 PM, and the mosquitoes…  The mosquitoes.  Alas.

Misery loves company, so I bring the dog, who ignores misery as far as I can tell.  She loves to race around in the tall Johnson grass, sky-hopping after the hawk and pouncing into likely cover.  I offer water regularly, mindful of the heat, but she refuses until we’re back at the truck.  No time for water, Dad.  Hunt!

The hawk thinks likewise, though they both pant.  All of us pant.  All of us swat mosquitoes and hunch our heads into our shoulders when we have to stop moving.  As much as possible, we keep moving.  We hike through the heat and high grass, trying to stay a step ahead of the swarm.  Did I mention the misery?  I’m allergic to something in the rank weeds and every night until the end of October come home in red welts across my neck and arms.  My pants and shirt are drenched in sweat.  The dog is sticky and flecked with seeds and mud.  The hawk is annoyed to be back at the truck, even with half a crop of food in him.

Happy. We come home happy.

Ernie, male Harris’s hawk, and Rina, whippet

The field, with humidity and sweat making it hard to see clearly.
Ernie with rail after Rina’s nosing it up
Virginia rail after trade for half a cotton rat

Sora, looking a bit like a snipe.  Squint, you can see that. 

Virigina rail, looking like the little Mesozoic critter that it is
Rail season chic


7 thoughts on “Rail Season”

  1. I did not realize that rail were particularly palatable. Prior to reading this post, the only reference I'd ever heard of anyone eating them was the extirpation of a species of flightless rail in the South Pacific by the isolated Japanese Army garrison there in the war.

    As I had mentioned to Steve, I have a number of books on bird phylogeny that go out of their way to mention the apparently stellar taste of tinamou meat. No other family of birds receives the slightest culinary footnote!

    Hmmm… a culinary guide to ornithology… that would be a worthy undertaking.

    Anyway, good to hear news from you, and I hope to see a rail recipe in the future!

  2. Rails and their relatives, coots and "moorhens", are dark and delicious if cooked right which many don't. You may have to skin the coots, which can have a rank taste there, but many kinds are eaten from Maine to the Cajun areas. I like all.

    Will we see you next week?

  3. Teddy I hadn't heard about your bird—very sorry! Ernie just had a booster of his WNV vaccine. They say it's the worst WNV year since the thing started. Dead blue jays common again and crows hard to find. Dozens of people have been sick with it in La., and some have died.

    Cat: I appreciate it!

    Neutrino: rails get a bad rap as an eating bird. I like them a lot and believe the reputation is from ignorance–mine too until I ate one. They taste like doves, but milder. If I had eaten them before I tried dove, I think I would find dove too strong. Now I'd rather eat rails, but doves are much easier to come by and have more meat on them.

    As for the multi-purpose bird guide, there are several but you may have to go back a ways to find one. In my library I have Sanford's "The Waterfowl Family"(1924), which is part field guide and part shooting treatise. I have others with recipies.

    Sanford begins chapter 7 ("Rail Shooting") like this: "When the wild oats along the tidal rivers of our coast begin to turn yellow with the first touch of fall, the time for rail has come, and the high tides of September give the sportsman his first chance."

    Later, there are several chapters devoted to "Shore-bird Shooting." 🙂

  4. Mullenix posts! Matt- we were lucky enough to catch a sora at a bird banding demonstration a little while ago, the first I'd had to hand. Interesting bird. Hope the rest of your season goes as well for you, Rina, and Ernie.


Leave a Comment