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Voyageur's Best Generally Speaking Columns of 2003

Yellow Rail

The hunt for Yellow Rails
at the McGregor marsh
by Cindy (Butler) Risen  |  July 1, 2003

The McGregor marsh in-vokes some very different responses from people, depending on who is imagining spending time visiting those wet bogs around town. Some may think of them as a worthless, wet grassy area that could be drained and used for more useful purposes. Others may not give the marsh a second thought at all, but mention the McGregor marsh to birders from all over the country and they will think “Yellow Rail.” Every summer, especially in June, bird watchers from all around the state (and country) will make the trip to McGregor, just for the chance to hear, and try to see, a Yellow Rail.

Yellow Rails are small birds, only slightly over seven inches long; that nest in the wet marshes in the northern mid-western states of the U.S., and winter in the south. They prefer soggy ground, with plenty of old grass in which they can build their own nests. The McGregor marsh is well known, because it is a very reliable and fairly easy place to find the birds. Although, when the birds are far and few between, and seeing them requires a walk of great distance through the wet hummocks (in the pitch blackness of the night) some may question how easy they are to find.

Just stopping along the highway, close to town, and listening, is all that is necessary to hear the birds calling at night. Generally silent during the day, the Yellow Rail begins its clicking call at dusk and may continue calling throughout the night. Listen quietly for the tic, tic, – tic, tic, tic call, very similar to tapping two stones or quarters together, and enjoy the song of the Yellow Rail. The bird is very territorial and will aggressively protect their nesting ground from other Rails. The bird flies short distances in the marsh, but prefers to creep mouse-like through the grass. This makes them very hard to spot, and almost impossible to see in the dark. The bird watchers will rhythmically tap two quarters together and hope the bird will answer, and then they will head out into the marsh and try to see the elusive bird.

The Rails so aggressively protect their territories that, at times, they will fly right into a group and try to attack the person making the tapping sound. This is what happened to us when Kim Risen and I ventured into the marsh last week. The tiny Yellow Rail not only flew right to us, it tried to attack! After a few taps with quarters, the bird flew right between us and landed only a few feet away on the grass. It then came creeping out to where we were sitting and jumped up on Kim’s hand and began pecking and kicking him. We watched for a few minutes, got some photos and left the little guy to the peacefulness of the marsh. The fireflies were flashing in the dark and the Rail was calling in the distance as we left. It was a very pleasant and exciting way to spend an evening in June.

Local residents of McGregor should appreciate what a treasure we have here, in our backyard. For many years and hopefully more to come, visitors have made the journey to our hometown just for the chance to hear or see this fascinating little bird. The dollars spent and the economic impact for the local lodging, food and fuel businesses is only a part of why we should encourage more of these visitors to our area, promoting the wonderful birds we sometimes take for granted. This is one way to highlight just what a terrific place McGregor really is. So the next time you see folks heading off into the marsh after dark, don’t just shake your head in wonder at what they could possibly be doing — thank the birds who make their homes here, for enticing birding tourists and their positive impact to our community.

This article first appeared in the July 1, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.