Ungainly Aviators

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

Plink! Clink! Cling! I awoke with a start. Something was interrupting the measured drone of my window fan.

Living in the Mississippi River hills of Pike County, I have become accustomed to sleeping through the hum of mosquitoes, the howling of coyotes and the drumming of ruffed grouse, but this metallic thud broke my morning slumber. I looked at the digital clock - it was 6 a.m. My friend Tom and his son, Dan, were flinging pebbles at my bedroom window fan to wake me to go rail hunting

After a light breakfast we set out for a 105-acre moist soil unit on the Ted Shanks Conservation Area along the Mississippi River, halfway between Hannibal and Louisiana, Missouri.

During the short drive, Tom and I filled Dan in on the natural history of sora rails - shy, diminutive seed-eating marsh birds that migrate through Missouri in mid-summer and provide a few avid hunters with something other than doves to hunt on September 1st.

The season on sora and Virginia rails typically opens Sept. 1 and runs through the first week of November with a combined limit of 25 birds. The sora rail is smaller than a bobwhite, longer legged and skinnier. The adult is a gray-brown bird with a yellow bill and sports a black face patch reminiscent of a raccoon's mask.

Rails are tasty morsels and can be substituted for doves in your favorite recipe. We often cook them together in the same dish. It takes about three rail breasts to equal the size of one dove breast. Rails spend a lot of time walking in matted marsh grass and along the shoreline in search of food. This results in thigh muscles which are relatively larger than a dove's so be sure to dress out the legs. I also save gizzards and hearts; every little bit helps when you are dealing in grams.

When we reached the marsh, the morning fog had lifted and it was obvious why this was a favored feeding spot for fall migrating ducks. Wild millet, rice cutgrass, sprangle top and beggarticks were all flooded to a depth of about 6 inches. Few puddle ducks could resist such a banquet.

But this was a hot, humid day in early September and the ducks were still up north. In fact, the marsh appeared to be devoid of all bird life. I told Dan to throw a rock far out into the water. Immediately the

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