Sora rails, while a small quarry, is an excellent game bird to chase during the lull between waterfowl seasons
A bird hunter knows, once autumn arrives, we form marriages with our shotguns.
Starting on Sept. 1, excited hunters, families, and dogs across America take to the fields to participate in annual mourning dove Labor Day hunts. Shortly after this, waterfowlers rush to marshes to watch teal pour in from the north. Once cooler weather pushes birds further south and seasons close, bird hunters are faced with a lull in activity until duck, pheasant, and quail seasons open.
But there is another bird season that stretches over these early fall months that tends to go unnoticed. The sora, a lesser-known game species, is a small brown-and-gray bird in the rail family (Rallidae). These secretive birds are roughly the size of a sparrow and spend their lives in freshwater marshes making homes in emergent vegetation. Sora feed primarily on seeds during fall migration and can be found in areas thick with sedges, grasses, wild rice, millet, and smartweed.
The sora has earned several nicknames including sora rail, soree, meadow chicken, and Carolina crake. Most notably for hunters, soras have been given the nickname “ortolan,” which comes from a small bird, called the ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana) that was considered a delicacy in France. European colonists hunted sora after they arrived in the new world and found them to be more delectable than the prized ortolan of the old country.
Today, ortolan hunting is illegal, but fortunately, sora hunting remains legal in 31 states. Sora hunting has lost the popularity it had in the 1800s and to this day remains an underutilized form of bird hunting. There are also three other rail species that are hunted in the United States: the clapper, Virginia, and king rail.
Hunting sora rails on public land
When determining where to find these small game birds, scout public lands that have semi-aquatic habitats, like wetlands, marshes, and flooded fields, with an abundance of seed-producing vegetation. The easiest way to determine the presence of soras is by listening for their vocalizations throughout the marsh.
Soras can be heard calling throughout the day, but active calling often happens in the twilight hours. Loud noises can startle these birds into calling, much like a tom turkey will shock gobble in the spring. A hunter can be sure there are soras in an area by listening for these strange squeaks, whistles, and whinnies. Further, these birds can congregate by the hundreds at migratory stopovers, so be ready for some fast shooting.
Sora hunting consists of flushing birds by walking through shallow water with dense vegetation. When hunted, a sora’s instinct is to run rather than fly, which creates a challenge when trying to flush birds. Locate patches of dense vegetation where sora may be feeding or hiding, then work to drive the birds from dense vegetation towards patches of open water, sparse vegetation, or higher ground, like a levee. Likely, the birds will run their escape route to find more cover but will be forced to flush, giving an opportunity to shoot. Often, soras will flush close and fly low, landing quickly back in cover.
Marking downed sora rails
Most of the time birds will fall in thick vegetation, and, even with a dog, they can be difficult to find. Marking birds as they fall is an effective way to recover downed birds. Pick a target in the line of a falling bird. Keep your eyes on that target and walk straight to it, without taking your eyes off it. Keeping to this strategy should increase the likelihood of finding birds.
Gear and ammunition for hunting sora rails
Hunting soras takes place in marshes or flooded fields, so waders or hip boots are a necessity.
These can be your run-of-the-mill waders, as camouflage is not necessary when hunting soras. Breathable, lightweight chest waders are best because sora hunting involves a lot of walking through mud, vegetation, and some deeper water. Further, a small game or upland vest will make it easier to carry out birds.
As far as shotshells, the lighter is better. I use a Weatherby 20-gauge shotgun with an improved cylinder choke loaded with No. 7 steel shot. A 20-gauge is lightweight and easy to carry while you are trudging through the marsh. Any shotgun would work well for sora hunting, but remember this bird is the size of a sparrow.
Sora rails as table fare
The English settlers were spot-on for nicknaming this bird after the delicacy of the old world. Sora meat is lean, dark, and rich in flavor. Some hunters peel the skin back to remove the breast meat. I like to pluck the birds whole.
If you are hunting birds at a stopover migration site, these birds gorge themselves on seeds and will pack on tons of fat that is lip-smacking good. You will miss out on rendering this fat if you breast the bird. A whole roasted bird sprinkled with salt, pepper, and lemon juice is all you need to enjoy the full flavor of sora. I would not skip out on pairing this meal with wine. A full-bodied, dark wine, such as malbec, syrah, or cabernet sauvignon, are good choices to compliment the rich flavors of sora meat.
Sora hunting may seem physically challenging and time-consuming for such a small quarry, but these birds have generous bag limits, are incredible table fare, and can fill the lull while we anxiously await our favorite opener. So, grab a couple of buddies, your hunting dog, and head out to the marsh. Don’t forget to check local regulations and brush up on species identification before heading out into the field.