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A Piece Of Rail

Warning!  The photos in this post might be gross for some for some readers.  It’s about a piece of bird (most likely a rail) that I found on a barb wire fence.

One of the things that really surprised me about this year’s Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival was the amount of flooding that occurred around Jamestown and is still causing trouble for the area.  All we heard in the news was about the Fargo flooding but there was still much more flooding going on in central North Dakota. It’s all the more impressive to me that organizers were able to get the festival going this year despite the flooding making lodging difficult (not to mention what the flooding did to the organizers’ personal residences) and the economy causing more people to tighten their belts in regards to travel.

But the flooding made for some great birding.  For example, American bitterns were seen all over by many festival participants.  Zeiss rep Steve Ingraham got some fun video of an attempted mating ritual between two bitterns (check out the males white shoulder patch action going on).

I went out with my buddy Katie for some birding and I noticed some fluff on a barb wire fence.  We pulled over and walked/hopped over the water filled ditch to get a closer look to see what it was.  It was a piece of bird.


I tried to pull it off to get a bitter look, but it was really hooked into the barb.  The general shape and size read “rail” to me.  I wondered what happened.  There was a marsh across the road, had the rail flown across and hit the top line and got stuck and died?  Then perhaps some predator or scavenger came by and ate part of the bird?  Barb wires can kill low flying birds as I learned at the Leks, Treks and More festival when we did the marking for the lesser prairie chickens.


The feet, the tail tip, the brown striping, and the state the bird piece was found in have narrowed it down for me to either Virginia rail or sora.  However, I just can’t decide on which.


At first, I thought I had it figured out with the feet, I know that sora’s have green toes and what was left of this bird had black toes.  However, if you check Virginia rail toes, those are pink.  The decomposition could have caused the toes to turn black.

I tried to see if I could find any images of rail vents to see if that would help my id, but could not.  This one may have end with “back half of rail.”

10 comments to A Piece Of Rail

  • I was expecting something far more graphic than that! But then, maybe I’m desensitized, having had to irrigate and medicate my poor little bunny’s gaping face wounds nightly for the past three weeks with no end in sight. I don’t suppose it could have been a mutant shrike that impaled it there?

  • I had a blue jay get stuck between 2 slats of a pickets fence. When I found him, his head was apart from his body. The second time it happened, I saw it and rescued the guy.
    The toes on your bird do look a bit dried out, so that would make identifying more difficult.

  • Laura

    (Let me preface the following question with, you know 1,000 times more stuff about birds than I):
    I thought Loggerhead Shrikes impaled their prey on pointy things like barbwire. Are there shrikes where you were?

  • holly

    When I put stuff up that I think isn’t that graphic, I get complaints, so I try to err on the side of caution. I’m with you on this one.


    Wow, glad you were there for that second blue jay!


    That is a GREAT question, and I certainly don’t know all there is to know about birds.

    Shrike never entered my mind because there was only one bird or animal on the fence and when I have found shrike caches in the past, they usually have all sorts of bits and piece on the barbs, not just one body.

    But I suppose shrike should not be out of the question and this got me thinking…how much does a shrike weigh in compared to a rail? For me, rails have always seemed heavy, however, the few opportunities that I have had to have a sora or Virginia rail in the hand, they are MUCH smaller than you would expect.

    So, I decided to check what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to say and according to Cornell’s All About Birds, here are some weights:

    Northern Shrike – 56–79 g
    Sora – 49–112 g
    Virginia Rail – 65–95 g

    I just checked Cornell’s Birds of North America Online and it does say that northern shrikes can carry prey in flight equal to and exceeding own body weight, so this rail being a shrike kill is not out of the realm of possibility.

  • with a catch that large, a shrike probably wouldn’t need a whole cache! I once found the head of a large grasshopper (a little bit larger than a marble) on a barbed wire fence. No other sign of a cache, but I was fairly certain it was a shrike and not, say, a warning from the godfather of the bug world.

  • I wish my personal economical belt wasn’t so darn tight–I would have loved to go back to ND for the festival again this year. Thanks for sharing the sights and sounds with us Sharon!

  • geee, nice li’l mystery! hard to imagine a bird getting permanently stuck on barbed wire just by flying into it; just looking at the pics didn’t really strike me as either VA. or Sora Rail, and the black legs are certainly confusing, but maybe in-hand it’s more clearcut; be curious if any other suggestions arise.

  • Birds do get caught on barbed wire fences. Just do a google image search.

  • Poor thing. I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of barbed wire fences on bird populations.

  • Hello,
    Can i get a one small pic from your site?