An Encounter With Rails

Several years ago I worked in a factory making plastic parts used in furniture. I had the day-shift, which was 9am-9pm. The work was very boring, and the twelve large machines positioned throughout the building made a lot of racket as they spewed their widgets.

A paved hiking trail went through the thick marshy area behind the factory. Small trees, bushes, and blackberry vines made excellent cover for rabbits, birds, garter snakes, and other small creatures. It also provided a nice quiet place for me to take most of my lunch breaks. I had a few favorite spots in the bramble to sit and watch and listen for birds, hoping to add another to my lifelist.

My interest in birds began when I was a small boy armed with a ten-cent slingshot. These slingshots were poorly made, and had very little range or killing power, so in order for me to have a chance to at least stun my prey I was required to get within a few feet of the birds. I'm glad now my kills were few, but the stalking experience came in handy when I matured from slingshot to binoculars and fieldguides.

The lifelist I mentioned earlier is simply a list of birds identified by individual birders. My list is one-hundred-seventy-five names long, but one sighting in particular had a dramatic affect on me, and much more substantial than the check mark I put by its name in my fieldguide.

Virginia rails are fairly common, but due to their shyness they are usually heard rather than seen. They are weak fliers, so they prefer to walk or run through their habitat of low-lying plants. Virginia rails actually have a flexible vertebrae which helps them wend their way through brush and marsh.

I had just spent about a half hour break a little ways into the trail's greenery, and had begun walking back to the factory. As I stepped out onto the trail a family of Virginia rails; cock, hen, and at least ten of their chicks who resembled black cotton balls on tiny legs were crossing the trail towards me. They were as surprised to see me suddenly appear as I was to encounter them in this way.

The hen immediately "klick klick klicked" her danger call and hurried her brood into the brush. As mother and children made their clumsy, yet orderly get-away dad stood his ground in the middle of the trail. He opened his longish, thin, red beak and began screaming at me. His eyes were alive with an unyielding fierceness. He showed no signs of running or flying away. It was as though he had made up his mind that if a member of his family was to die at the hands of this giant it would be him, not them. I immediately stepped back in order to give the rail assurance that I meant no harm, and that it was safe for him to rejoin his family, which he did.

As I entered the factory door I was still feeling a strong sense of awe at what I had witnessed: a ten-inch bird screaming at a creature a hundred-fifty times its weight: "Come on! Come after me! Leave my family alone!"

I then noticed that three of my co-workers were huddled near the front door of the factory. They were nervous about something, and were prepared to run out the door at a moment's notice.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"We just saw a MOUSE run across the floor!" they exclaimed.

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