Skinny As A Rail? Not Me!

Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) ©WikiC

Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) ©WikiC

Skinny as a rail? Not me!

~ James J. S. Johnson

“But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have respect in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.”    (Luke 14:10)

Luzon Bleeding-heart by Dan


Is it really advantageous to be frequently noticed?  Is having a “low profile” a prudent practice?  Surely when someone gets a reputation, for being a “show-off”, the spotlight becomes a disadvantage.

When I was a teenager I was called “skinny as a rail”.  Once I arrived at age 20, however, for some reason I stopped hearing that description.  Of course, I blame my weight gain on getting married to a wonderful cook (who, for 3-dozen-plus years, has made eating an ongoing adventure!)!  Actually, I am not too far from being double the weight that I had, 121 pounds, when I got married!

Hmmm – maybe exercise has something to do with it, too.  It’s been a long time since someone said (of me), “he’s so skinny, if he turned sideways we couldn’t see him!”  It is the literal truth that my wife has been with me “through thick and thin”.

But this is supposed to be about birds.

Railway ©WikiC

Railway ©WikiC

So now we should consider something that Robert and Alice Lippson, both ecologists, have to say about being “skinny as a rail”.

“’As thin as a rail’—is it the narrow steel ribbon of a railroad track or the slim boards that make up a fence?  Just where did that old saw come from, anyway?  It pertains to certain members of the Rallidae family, the rails, which also includes coots and gallinules.  The rails have thin, compressed bodies that allow them to thread their way through seemingly impenetrable thickets and literally to disappear into the marsh. … Rails are usually brown and patterned or mottled with white [feathers], while coots are slate or soot colored.  Rails are found in the [Chesapeake] Bay wetlands year-round.”

[Quoting Alice Jane Lippson & Robert L. Lippson, LIFE IN THE CHESAPEAKE BAY:   An Illustrated Guide to the Fishes, Invertebrates, Plants, Birds, and Other Inhabitants of the Bays and Inlets from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, 3rd Edition (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), page 232.]

Perhaps the most prominent rail in the Chesapeake Bay region is the Marsh Hen, also called the “Clapper Rail” (Rallus crepitans, a/k/a Rallus longirostris), known for its harsh-sounding clattering vocalizations [klek-klek-klek-klek-klek] that almost sounds like rattling or rapid clapping.

The Clapper Rail is routinely found in salt marshes and some freshwater marshes on America’s East Coast, from Massachusetts to Florida, plus in wetlands bordering California’s inland Salton Sea, and even along the banks of the lower parts of the Colorado River.  [See John Bull & John Farrand, Jr., NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY FIELD GUIDE TO NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS, EASTERN REGION, revised edition (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), page 455.]

Have I ever seen one?  Probably not.  But that’s not unusual, according to Lippson & Lippson, who say that hearing one is more likely than seeing one, especially due to their habit of being more active at night.  [Lippson & Lippson, page 232.]  But, if you do see a Clapper Rail, it might not realize you are watching!

Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) ©WikiC

Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) ©WikiC

“Clapper rails are secretive birds and are usually not seen unless forced off the reed floor by high tides.  Then they are frequently seen along the edge of the marsh and even along nearby roads.  Even though they are in the open and quite visible, clapper rails apparently think they are still in the marsh, unseen and safe.  Like the least bittern, they are reluctant fliers and when flushed will make brief [airborne] sorties, legs dangling, then drop and disappear into the marsh vegetation.  Curiously enough, rails are capable of making long migratory flights.  The best way to ‘see’ a rail is with your ears:  listen for the clattering “kek-kek-kek”, especially in the early evening and at dawn.  The clapper rail is widely distributed throughout the [Chesapeake] Bay.”  [Quoting Lippson & Lippson, page 232.]

So much for keeping a low profile, especially when perils are near!  If you can be inconspicuous, it’s usually to your advantage, — but, if not, it’s good to have a Plan B (like the Clapper Rail’s getaway response) if you need one.

Meanwhile, don’t forget the lesson of Luke 14:10.  Routinely assume that you should take a “low profile”.  If you are directed “up” (i.e., promoted to a “higher” responsibility), so be it,  —  trusting God to guide you, use the “high profile” opportunity to honor God.  Yet don’t forget: the Clapper Rail strategy has its merits  –  if you are inconspicuous you are less likely to become somebody’s target!


Rallidae – Rails, Crakes and Coots


James J. S. Johnson

Good News

Clapper Rail by Lee at Merritt Island NWR


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