This one was inspired by Corey at 1000birds.com and his quick action under pressure.
They may not know it, but I suspect that a lot of non-birders have decent life lists. Take a non-birder living in suburban anytown, New York. Certainly they have Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, and Starlings (though they may call them Blackbirds.) Most have Mallard and Canada Goose. If they feed birds or live with someone who does, they know Cardinal, Blue Jay, Chickadee and maybe Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and are at least generally aware of Woodpeckers.
Most non-birders also know of some “special” birds. They would recognize an adult Bald Eagle if they saw one, or a Brown or White Pelican. They may have a story about such a bird – like the Barred Owl that fell down the chimney, the Scarlet Tanager they saw in the park and identified online, or the Cooper’s Hawk that grabbed a Mourning Dove off their driveway.
But non-birders don’t know much about Rails. It isn’t surprising. Rails are birds of darkness and damp; they’re lucky they’re not a little bigger, or the Puritans would probably have decided that they were Satanic and needed to be exterminated. As it is, habitat loss has been hard on them; until recently, draining swamps was considered a work of virtue.
Even when in-the-know birders go looking for them, Rails are more often heard than seen and more often glimpsed than savored. Many birder-Rail encounters have a touch of the serendipitous, by which I mean they involve instances when the Rail fucked up. Look at Corey’s recent Virginia Rail in Manhattan, or my own one and only encounter with the same species, when an immature bird landed on a rain-shined street in Bed-Stuy, or the recent Sora that had to be extracted from the ice-skating rink at Prospect Park, or in the worst-case scenario, this Sora. And these are the rails that are described as “fairly widespread” and “common” in Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds; consider the difficulty of getting your eyes on the Black Rail, no bigger than a sparrow and “extremely secretive”; or the Yellow Rail, “almost never seen in normal conditions”.
It’s one thing when a bird’s elusive nature makes for an annoying gap in the life list; but the Rails are not only difficult to tick, but difficult to monitor and conserve. People rarely get worked up over the local extirpation of a bird that they have no idea was there to begin with. Species status accounts are filled with generalities; more study of these birds is needed almost everywhere.
Tell a non-birder about a Rail; about their wild cries and cunning camouflages, their precocious young, the way that they migrate long distances despite looking like they have the aerodynamics and stamina of a barnyard hen. Look for a Rail, and when you find it, look out for it.