How to hunt Sora rails

Sora Rails, while a small quarry, make an excellent game bird to chase during the lull between waterfowl seasons.

A bird catcher knows that once fall comes, we make marriages with our shotguns.

Beginning September 1, enthusiastic hunters, families and dogs from across the United States take to the fields to participate in the annual Labor Day mourning dove hunt. Shortly after this, waterfowl hunters rush into the swamps to watch teals arrive from the north. Once cooler weather pushes birds farther south and seasons close, birders face a lull in activity until duck, pheasant and quail seasons open.

But there is another birding season that stretches through these early fall months that tends to go unnoticed. The sora, a lesser-known game species, is a small brown and gray bird of the rail family (Rallidae). These stealthy birds are about the size of a sparrow and spend their lives in freshwater swamps and make their homes in emerging vegetation. Sora feed primarily on seeds during the fall migration and can be found in areas filled with reeds, grasses, wild rice, millet, and smart grass.

The sora has earned several nicknames, including sora rail, soree, meadow chicken, and Carolina crake. To hunters in particular, soras have been given the nickname “ortolan”, which comes from a small bird, called the pennant ortolan (Emberiza Gardenalisten)) that was considered a delicacy in France. European settlers hunted sora after arriving in the new world and found that they were more delicious than the prized ortolan of the old country.

Today, ortolan hunting is illegal, but luckily, sora hunting is still legal in 31 states. Sora hunting has lost its popularity in the 19th century and to this day remains an underused form of bird hunting. There are also three other species of rails that are hunted in the United States: clapper, Virginia, and king rail.

The author with her bird dog and a fallen Sora in a wetland.

Sora hunting rails on public land

When determining where to find these small game birds, explore public lands that have semi-aquatic habitats, such as wetlands, marshes, and flooded fields, with abundant seed-producing vegetation. The easiest way to determine the presence of soras is to listen for their vocalizations throughout the swamp.

Soras can be heard calling throughout the day, but active calls often occur in the twilight hours. Loud noises can startle these birds into calling, much like a tom turkey will gobble up in the spring. A hunter can be sure that there are soras in an area by listening for these strange chirps, hisses, and neighs. Also, these birds can congregate in the hundreds on migratory stopovers, so be ready to shoot fast.

Sora hunting involves scaring away 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 it comes to scaring away birds. Locate patches of dense vegetation where Sora may be feeding or hiding, then work to move birds away from dense vegetation to patches of open water, sparse vegetation, or higher ground, such as a dam. The birds will likely follow your escape route to find more cover, but will be forced to run, giving them a chance to shoot. Often the soras will close in and fly low, quickly landing back under cover.

Fallen Sora Rails Marking

Most of the time, the birds will drop into the thick vegetation and, even with a dog, they can be difficult to find. Marking birds as they fall is an effective way to retrieve fallen birds. Pick a target in the line of a falling bird. Keep your eyes on that target and walk directly towards it, without taking your eyes off it. Maintaining this strategy should increase the probability of finding birds.

A dead sora in the hand of a hunter.

Equipment and ammunition for hunting sora rails.

Sora hunting takes place in swamps or flooded fields, so wellies or tall boots are a must.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

These can be your running galoshes, as camouflage is not necessary when hunting soras. Lightweight, breathable chest waders are best because sora hunting involves a lot of walking through mud, vegetation, and some deeper water. In addition, a small game or mountain hunting vest will make it easier to capture birds.

When it comes to cartridges, lighter is better. I use a 20-gauge Weatherby shotgun with an improved barrel choke loaded with No. 7 steel shot. A 20-gauge is light and easy to carry while walking through the swamp. Any shotgun works well for hunting Sora, but remember that this bird is the size of a sparrow.

Sora rails as table fee

The English settlers hit the nail on the head when they dubbed this bird for the Old World delicacy. Sora’s meat is lean, dark, and rich in flavor. Some hunters peel back the skin to remove the breast meat. I like to pluck whole birds.

If you are hunting birds at a stopover migration site, these birds will gorge on seeds and pack on tons of fat which are delicious. You will miss out on making this fat if you breastfeed the bird. A whole roast bird sprinkled with salt, pepper, and lemon juice is all you need to enjoy the full flavor of sora. I would not stop pairing this food with wine. A full-bodied dark wine, such as malbec, syrah, or cabernet sauvignon, are good choices to complement 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, make incredible table fare, and can fill the lull as we eagerly await our favorite opener. So, grab a couple of friends, your hunting dog, and head out into the swamp. Don’t forget to check local regulations and brush up on species identification before heading out into the field.