Marsh Birds

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

weave into vegetation over water are nearly impossible to locate. They lay as many as 12 eggs per clutch.

Though perhaps a regular breeder in many Missouri marshes, soras are seldom found. This apparently was true in Widmann's era, too, because he wrote little about their nesting status. Soras are much more common during migration and can be legally hunted.

King rail: These 14-inch rails are listed as endangered in Missouri. Where present, they are relatively easy to detect by surveyors because they readily answer to electronic playbacks of their calls. Later in the summer, they bring their broods out of the reeds to feed on open mud flats. Nests are canopied, basket-like structures suspended in vegetation over water, often near shore.

In Widmann's day, king rails were, in his words, "A fairly common summer resident in the marshes along the large rivers." Now, only one or two Missouri wetlands are known to harbor king rails.

Common moorhen: The primary difference between these 11-inch, dark gray swimmers and American coots is their red bill and face-shield. They are easy to find because they select marshes with open water and are often seen swimming in rafts, sometimes with their broods in tow. They suspend their nests in vegetation, often right at water level, and they lay clutches of up to 15 eggs. As water levels fall during their nesting period, they build ramps to their nests.

In 1907, according to Widmann, common moorhens occurred in the bottomlands from St. Louis northward. Currently they are known to live in fewer than a half-dozen Missouri wetlands.

Marsh wren: Of the six wren species that occur in Missouri, the marsh wren is most closely tied to marsh habitat. They can be identified by their cocked tail, russet color and white line through the eye. Their call, a wren-like chatter, often resonates from deep within a marsh. They associate with tall sedges, rushes and grasses. Their nests are softball-size globes intertwined with supporting vegetation, with entrance holes in the side. They nest twice per nesting season and lay an average of five eggs.

Widmann called marsh wrens "fairly common summer residents in the marshes of the Mississippi and Missouri floodplains and locally common in the prairie regions of the north and west." They are still commonly found where dense marsh vegetation occurs over shallow water.

Yellow-headed blackbird: Along with red-winged blackbirds, these are the most easily seen and identified marsh birds. Males emit raspy, buzzy calls to defend territories, and one male may attract several females to mate with him. Nests are invariably constructed over water, often in cattails. They lay three to five eggs and nest twice each year.

In Widmann's day, yellow-headed blackbirds were found west of a line from the northeastern to the southwestern corners of the state. Today, they nest only in northwestern counties and are limited to no more than five to 10 Missouri marshes.

Other birds that use Missouri marshes for nesting are the mallard, blue-winged teal, black-crowned night-heron, American coot, sedge wren, common yellowthroat, swamp sparrow and great-tailed grackle.

Somewhat rarer marsh birds include Wilson's phalarope and black tern. The latter was formerly a common breeder. It was last known to nest at what is now the Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area (St. Charles Co.) in the 1950s. The black rail is one of the rarest marsh birds in the country. Although Missouri lies in the center of its Midwestern breeding range, it has been detected less than half a dozen times during the state's history.

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