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What Rails Remember

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October 30, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal

Birds remember landscapes fundamentally invisible to us non-birds. I am reminded of this by a telephone call on Saturday night from a gentleman who lives at Garfield north of Beaver Lake. He is an experienced outdoors person, but near his home he has encountered a stranger: in size and general coloration, reminds him of the Northern Bobwhite, or quail, but the bill is longish and pointed rather than short and conical. The eyes are dark and large. When he walks toward the bird it doesn’t just fly away like a quail, but sort of pops up and then down with short awkward flights.

The call comes in late at night. I’m at home, watching a movie. Nothing pops up for me while we talk. But then I remember Doug James’ wife Elizabeth Adam finding a Viriginia Rail in a parking lot at Northwest Arkansas Mall in 1987. Bruce Roberts found one at a storage unit in Centerton in 2005. A Virginia Rail that spent a few surprising days in a strawberry patch near Fayetteville in 2008. What this tells me is that while these rails certainly nest and spend the winter in marshy habitat, they may come down or be forced down during migration in some surprising places. So why is that?

Virginia Rail is today exceedingly rare in northwestern Arkansas, though I suspect the rarity is recent and entirely artificial. Habitat-wise, northwest Arkansas is divided between Ozark forest in the east and former prairies in the west. Some of you may remember that we once had bison here in the early 1800s, a sign of extensive native grasslands. Rails have been flying through our former prairies for eons, from nesting areas to our north, to wintering south. They have many thousands of years of experience with our grasslands that can be suitably wet and marshy in season. In their genes, they “remember.” When in migration they come down, they do so in “belief” of suitable wet grassland. Nothing prepares them for what genetically-speaking, is a mere twinkling of an eye: our contemporary urban sprawl, asphalt parking lots, big boxes, empires of chicken and cattle, all so very recently consuming our seasonal wetlands.

A rail in a parking lot is the dramatic clash between what has taken so long to prepare in an evolutionary sense – we are talking many tens of thousands of years here — bird migration, and our very recent (less than 200 years) exploitation of the land driven by the self-defeating idea that our self-interest is all that matters. Lucky rails, like the one I saw in a spring-fed marshy patch at the state fish hatchery in Centerton in 2006, still find a suitable mid-journey respite.

Lost rail with genetic memory of a different land seems a good fit for the bird at Garfield. When I pass this on to my caller, and he has a chance to see Virginia Rails on the internet, he agrees.

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