The water rail is a skulking creature. In Scotland it is sometimes called scarragrise, meaning ‘scared in the grass’, because it creeps about in long grass and reeds.
Formerly it was not uncommon, especially in the islands, and it is recorded among bird remains in Mesolithic middens from about 7500-3500 BC. Royal accounts mention the species being purchased to furnish the table of James V in 1525. Perhaps it was commoner then but now it is rarely seen. Indeed in the fifteen years I have been in living in Scotland I have only seen one which scuttled across a road while I was driving near Blairgowrie.
Rallus aquaticusWebIn Warwickshire they were commoner along the banks of Shakespeare’s Avon. Once a Labrador pounced on one in the water weeds by the river and I was able to handle its corpse and even incorporate some of its plumage into trout flies. Though attractive to me, I do not remember a fish looking at it! The bird has a long, slightly down-curved bill; mottled brown of back, purplish of breast and with barred flanks: it is a striking species which is often seen, slinkingly, and only in winter when waterside vegetation is low.

These birds are commoner on the continent where they are more often heard than seen. In spring they have  harsh cry, called ‘sharming’, by which they call for mates but the call most often heard is a pig-like squeal. This earns for them the Italian name of ‘Porciglione’ which means ‘piggyish’. Porciglione  like  ‘Porcelain’ comes  from the Italian porcellana or little pig which was he name given by early Portuguese Far Eastern traders to Cowrie shells which look like little pigs. This led later to Chinese ceramics, which had a sheen similar to the interior of the shells, being called porcelain. Cowrie shells were used for money and so the water rail has unlikely associations with finance and ceramics.
The water rail belongs to the family of the Rallidae which, among others, include the much commoner moorhen and coot and, in Scotland, the corncrake which I remember seeing in Hertfordshire in the early days of World war II. I have since seen them in North Uist and other sites in the Hebrides. Again they more often heard than seen; an elderly local told me that as a boy he often heard them in boggy ground near Weem.
A useful trick to see one if you hear the corncrake’s rasp is to draw a credit card over the teeth of a comb which imitates its call. Eventually if you persist the bird’s curiosity becomes so great that it sticks its head up to see who is calling. It is a good idea to check you are alone when doing this; a casual observer may wonder at your sanity.
The Rallidae is a large family of 124 species worldwide of which I have seen about a quarter. Seeking rails has taken me to some strange places especially sewage works such as the great waste disposal site at Werribee near Melbourne and others coping with the effluvia of Alice Springs and Vancouver; malodorous perhaps but great for rails!

Robin Hull


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