"Let's go rail hunting!" is the suggestion which is made each September by hunters along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. Despite the fact that there are several species of gallinules (rails) quite similar to each other, the clapper rail is the game species.
It is important to know how to distinguish this bird from the others, for shooting the wrong one will mean breaking the law.
"Mr. Clapper" is a sixteen inch long bird with a rather long bill, heavy though rather long neck supported by a rather plump body, and broad wings which in turn is supported by long legs and feet equipped to carry it with speed across the mud flats and marshes.
The forehead is a dusky color, the rest of the body a pale olive, ashy color. The distinct identifying marks are on the underparts and under the tail, colored with alternating bands of off-white and muddy rust.
Hunting technique is employed usually by the use of a boat or scow which is paddled and poled along the edges of marshes and swamps, or along the streams coursing through the muck. Some hunters walk and wade, but in most cases this proves to be a hard job with the possibility of a dangerous fall or a sinking into the mire.
The birds are generally easy to locate and will flush quite near the gun at the beginning of the season. After they have been hunted over for some time, they become smart and run for quite a distance before taking off. They are not a covey bird so seldom rise up in a group. Usually they flush in singles or at the most, in pairs.
Why rail hunting has become popular is a mystery to some sportsmen. Certainly the bird is no great taste treat at the table, nor is it a particularly tricky flier. Perhaps it is because this is the first bird that is legal at the beginning of the hunting season that brings the sportsmen out.
They are easily discovered and the parents don't seem to mind too close intrusion. The little ones, numbering usually from six to fifteen are glossy black in color, and are quite clumsy, waddling and swaying in their nest of dead grasses set on a platform in a clump of high grass. They seem to like to nest in communities. Where you find one nest you will usually find several nearby.
While out visiting them you will also become acquainted with several other rail and shorebird species of interest, although they are, except for the jacksnipe, protected from gunning.
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