Rice and Rails Go Well Together

Please consider all images as copyrighted – thank you. Contact me for use… DEClapp

Just to get started let me urge you to buy Louisiana-grown rice. It would be good for their economy and good for birds as well. Send away for it if you have to. A second thing to consider is to attend the Yellow Rails & Rice Festival in early November 2017. We went last year and had 30 Yellow Rails the first day. It is a good program with good birds and very nice people. In addition we had hundreds and hundreds of White-faced Ibis, Skimmers, and various geese. The Louisiana countryside was full of surprise – look back on this blog to a previous post on Louisiana Birds.

Rice trails only sugar cane and corn/maize as an agricultural commodity worldwide. The plant was domesticated about 10,000 years ago (+-2,000 years either way) and is still a staple in the diet of several billion of our world’s people. There are thousands of varieties of rice being grown today. China and India produce about 50% of the annual crop. But, Louisiana has the nicest growers, great rice, and Yellow Rails – can anyone beat that?

The Yellow Rail is a target bird for all list-keeping birders and probably just any sort of birder at all. It is very hard to see. It is small. It is nocturnal. It doesn’t fly much. But there is a way to see them – lots of them as a matter of fact. This is a rewrite of a blog post I did back in  November of 2016 – somehow I deleted the original.

Louisiana yellow rail
Rails are an odd group of birds and the Yellow Rail is one of the most cryptic and elusive of them. Rails are mostly creatures of the ground, wet ground with thick vegetation seems to their favorite. “Skinny as a rail” refers to their ability to flatten themselves vertically so they can slip between the stalks of emergent wetland vegetation – like cattail stems. Our human ancestors spent a lot of time outside and noticed all sorts of things that nature has allowed/created/evolved – I’ll wager none of you readers have seen a rail flatten itself.
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The Louisiana rice crop is a boon to Yellow Rails and the harvesting of the rice puts Yellow Rails on display. The fields provide habitat and cover, and maybe makes food more easily accessible. The rice, a grass as you can see, is the smallish seed growing at the end of a 24″ stalk, but is harvested by big equipment at an amazing rate. 
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The harvester speeds (moves, lumbers, roars) around the field cutting the grass stalks and separating the rice (seed) from the grass and tossing up a considerable amount of dust. The rice is collected, more than a ton at a time, in that circular hopper at the top of the machine, and taken to a tractor trailer parked at the edge of the field where that nozzle on the top right spews it into the trailer.
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Here is my favorite trucker hanging out near her rig. The day was very warm and the harvesting created a lot of dust. Some times when the fields are cut the ground is damper and on those days the fields yield lots of Virginia, King, and Sora Rails as well as Yellows. We had 30 Yellow Rails and one or two King and Virginia.
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This closeup of the birders on the harvester doesn’t look too dusty but when the machine circles a field it gets in its own dust for at least half the circuit. The filters are a welcome facial adornment. Also, we had ATVs that we drove right next to the rakes of the combine so that when a Yellow Rail flew out from in from of the cutter we could easily relocate it.
Louisiana yellow rail
Several Yellow rails were captured and banded. This allowed for nice close looks at this elusive bird. Once put up by the harvester they usually flew less than 100′ and put down. Often we could see them on the ground in the cut areas.
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In the very center (center line that is) about a quarter of the way in from the left is a yellow rail — see it? The Yellow Rail is very difficult to see even when you know where it is. Rails, in general, are suffering from habitat loss and loss of water quality. The very tiny Black Rail is now totally missing from many of its traditional breeding areas.

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