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Sora Rail: Game Bird Profile

Making the case for hunting one of the most obscure marsh birds.

Sora Rail: Game Bird Profile

Here's why you should consider putting the sora rail into your bird hunting season plans. (Photo By: FotoRequest/Shutterstock.com)

Mention to people that you hunt sora rails and the response you'll probably get will be a blank stare. Many people, hunters included, have never even heard of these unique birds. Your waterfowling buddies may be familiar with soras, but the suggestion of hunting them might make them chuckle. The diminutive sora rail has a lowly reputation amongst bird hunters, and I believe that is undeserved. Here's why you should consider putting soras into your hunting season plans.


Sora Rail Biology

The sora rail, Porzana carolina,(or simply sora), is a secretive bird of marshes and wetlands. It’s a member of the taxonomic family Rallidae. Along with other species of rails, this family also includes the gallinules and the well-known American coot. The sora rail is one of the smallest members of this family—about the size of a blackbird. The sora is the most widespread rail in North America, with a migratory range extending coast to coast and to the northern extremes of the continent. Its abundance goes largely unnoticed due to its skill at staying hidden in the vegetation of its marshy habitats.

sora rail
Note the long legs and bright yellow bill of this adult sora, along with their distinctive long toes that help them stay above the waterline of the marsh. (Photo By: Matt Shively)

Soras have a mottled brown and black back, similar to a bobwhite quail or a woodcock. Depending upon age, gender, and season, its cheeks and belly may range from a slate gray to light brown or cream color. The face at the base of the bill and the underside of their neck are black. Its only giveaway is its bill. The bill is long, very thick at its base, and bright yellow. Another distinctive feature of the sora is its long, greenish-yellow legs. The legs are almost as long as the rest of the body—half that length is just its toes. Soras are not swimmers, and its toes are not webbed. The long toes are open, allowing it to stay above the waterline in the dense network of marsh vegetation.

If you’ve never hunted sora and wonder how you’ll know what to look for on the flush, the bright yellow bill and the legs will tell you that you’ve found your quarry. Soras let their legs dangle down beneath them while flying. When you see one flush, you’ll be shocked that this species can migrate to places as far away as South America. They rarely get more than head-high, with a flight typically lasting just a few seconds before appearing to crash-land back down into the marsh. In short, they look really goofy on the wing and once you’ve seen one flush, you’ll have no trouble identifying them again. I usually raise them in singles or pairs, rarely flushing more than that at one time. But the next flush may happen just a few paces away.

Marsh Bag Mix-Up

Soras are often found with other migratory species, such as the snipe, woodcock, and waterfowl. Depending upon your location, you might also be able to bag king rails, clapper rails, Virginia rails, or gallinules. Be sure to know which species are legal and how to identify them, as well as the regulations and season dates for the state you plan to hunt in. 

DON'T MISS! (Learn All About Migratory Birds)


The bag limits for soras are also very generous. In many places, the bag limit is 20 or more birds. If you’re hunting a good spot, you can get a lot of action before having to call it quits. To be fair, the breast of a sora is small, about the size of a walnut. While you’ll need quite a few to make a meal, they taste delicious. The meat is like that of a dove—darker than say, pheasant—but not so much as duck. I typically use a boning knife to slice the meat off each side of the breast, producing two bite-sized nuggets. 

sora rail
The author and his dog with a “hatful” of sora rails. The breast is small, but they are delicious. (Photo By: Matt Shively)

Sora Rail Habitat

When it comes to locating soras, not all marshes and wetlands are created equal. You to need find the right habitat, and they are very particular, preferring areas with dense vegetation to hide in. The wetland must be inundated with standing water. I tend to find most soras where the water is between ankle and waist deep. Rarely do I get more than waist deep, because the vegetation usually gets too thin deeper than that.

The kind of vegetation is also important. Remember the long toes? Those toes act almost like pontoons, allowing soras to spread their weight over the dense tangles of stems and leaves sitting just on top of the water. It’s really a great adaptation—the water and weeds keep them out of reach from terrestrial predators like coyotes and foxes, and out of view of hawks and other raptors. Target dense stands of smartweed, knotweed (dock), and barnyard grass (millet). To a lesser extent, you may also find them in bullrushes and pickerelweed, or in flooded cocklebur. Avoid large expanses of cattail, as well as flat floating plants like water lily, lotus, and spatterdock. These plants lack either the vertical or horizontal structure that soras need.

hunting sora rail
This stand of predominantly millet provides excellent structural cover for sora rails. (Photo By: Matt Shively)

Hunting Sora Rails

So, why hunt sora?  For starters, here in the Midwest, it fills the lull between dove season and upland and waterfowl seasons. Seasons vary by state, but generally start in September and can run all the way into November. Chasing soras will get you more hunting hours between the more popular upland bird and waterfowl seasons along with early season conditioning and more bird contacts for your dog.

MUST READ! (Guide to Finding Public Land Birds)

The sora’s poor flight capability can also make them easy targets for those just learning wingshooting. Unlike the explosive speed of quail or woodcock, the low and slow flight of a sora can buy the extra second or two that a novice might need to find his or her lead. In fact, for the seasoned shooter, I recommend intentionally holding off the shot for a moment, to allow them enough distance to minimize damage to the breast. 

No special equipment is required for sora hunting. All you need is a shotgun with open chokes, light loads, and some clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and muddy. Be aware if the area your hunting requires the use of non-toxic shot. Being a migratory bird, you’ll need a Harvest Information Program (HIP) number in addition to your hunting license.

If you haven’t tried hunting sora rails yet, I hope you will give it a shot. It’s truly become one of my favorite species. If you do… you just might become a sora addict too.

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