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Effects of Management Practices on Wetland Birds:

Virginia Rail

Drawing by Patsy Renz: Virginia Rail

This report is one in a series of literature syntheses on North American wetland birds. The need for these reports was identified by the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture (PPJV), a part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The PPJV adopted a goal to stabilize or increase populations of declining grassland- and wetland-associated wildlife species in the Prairie Pothole Region. To further that objective, it is essential to understand the habitat needs of birds other than waterfowl, and how management practices affect their habitats. The focus of these reports is on management of breeding habitat, particularly in the northern Great Plains.

This resource is based on the following source:

Zimmerman, A. L., J. A. Dechant, B. E. Jamison, D. H. Johnson, C. M. Goldade, J. O. Church, and B. R. Euliss.  2002.  Effects of management practices on wetland birds: Virginia Rail.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND.  31 pages.

This resource should be cited as:

Zimmerman, A. L., J. A. Dechant, B. E. Jamison, D. H. Johnson, C. M. Goldade, J. O. Church, and B. R. Euliss.  2003.  Effects of management practices on wetland birds: Virginia Rail.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/wetbird/vira/vira.htm (Version 12DEC2003).


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Effects of Management Practices on Wetland Birds:

Virginia Rail

Amy L. Zimmerman, Jill A. Dechant, Brent E. Jamison, Douglas H. Johnson,
Christopher M. Goldade, James O. Church, and Betty R. Euliss

Series Coordinator: Douglas H. Johnson
Series Assistant Coordinator: Jill A. Dechant

Reviewer: Courtney J. Conway

Range Map: Jeff T. Price

Illustration: Patsy Renz

Funding: Prairie Pothole Joint Venture
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Geological Survey


Organization and Features of this Species Account

Information on the habitat requirements and effects of habitat management on wetland birds were summarized from information in more than 500 published and unpublished papers. A range map is provided to indicate the relative densities of the species in North America, based on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data. Although the BBS may not capture the presence of elusive waterbird species, the BBS is a standardized survey and the range maps, in many cases, represent the most consistent information available on species' distributions. Although birds frequently are observed outside the breeding range indicated, the maps are intended to show areas where managers might concentrate their attention. It may be ineffectual to manage habitat at a site for a species that rarely occurs in an area. The species account begins with a brief capsule statement, which provides the fundamental components or keys to management for the species. A section on breeding range outlines the current breeding distribution of the species in North America, including areas that could not be mapped using BBS data. The suitable habitat section describes the breeding habitat and occasionally microhabitat characteristics of the species, especially those habitats that occur in the Great Plains. Details on habitat and microhabitat requirements often provide clues to how a species will respond to a particular management practice. A table near the end of the account complements the section on suitable habitat, and lists the specific habitat characteristics for the species by individual studies. The area requirements section provides details on territory and home range sizes, minimum area requirements, and the effects of patch size, edges, and other landscape and habitat features on abundance and productivity. It may be futile to manage a small block of suitable habitat for a species that has minimum area requirements that are larger than the area being managed. The section on brood parasitism summarizes information on intra- and interspecific parasitism, host responses to parasitism, and factors that influence parasitism, such as nest concealment and host density. The impact of management depends, in part, upon a species' nesting phenology and biology. The section on breeding-season phenology and site fidelity includes details on spring arrival and fall departure for migratory populations in the Great Plains, peak breeding periods, the tendency to renest after nest failure or success, and the propensity to return to a previous breeding site. The duration and timing of breeding varies among regions and years. Species' response to management summarizes the current knowledge and major findings in the literature on the effects of different management practices on the species. The section on management recommendations complements the previous section and summarizes recommendations for habitat management provided in the literature. The literature cited contains references to published and unpublished literature on the management effects and habitat requirements of the species. This section is not meant to be a complete bibliography; a searchable, annotated bibliography of published and unpublished papers dealing with habitat needs of wetland birds and their responses to habitat management is posted on the main page under the section Searchable Bibliography.


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Virginia Rail
(Rallus limicola)
GIF - Virginia Rail range map.
Figure.  Probability of occurrence (number of years detected/number of years route was run) of Virginia Rails in the United States and southern Canada, based on Breeding Bird Survey data, 1973-1996. Map courtesy of Jeff T. Price.

Key to management is providing seasonal and semipermanent wetlands with water depths ranging from 0 to 15 cm, with high invertebrate abundance, and with moderate proportions (30-70%) of emergent vegetation interspersed with open water, mudflat, and to a lesser extent, floating residual vegetation. The following account does not address harvest, but instead focuses on habitat management.

Breeding Range:


Virginia Rails breed in southcentral British Columbia, southcentral Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, throughout New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine, south to central California, northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, central Kansas, northern Iowa, and east to New Jersey (National Geographic Society 1999). (See figure for the probability of occurrence of Virginia Rails in the United States and southern Canada, based on Breeding Bird Survey data.)

Suitable habitat:


Virginia Rails breed in fresh and sometimes brackish seasonal and semipermanent wetlands with water depths ranging from 0 to 15 cm, high invertebrate abundance, and moderate (30-70%) proportions of emergent vegetation interspersed with open water, mudflat, and to a lesser extent, floating residual vegetation (Beattie 1899; Billard 1948; Bent 1963; Stewart and Kantrud 1965; Baird 1974; Stewart 1975; Tacha 1975; Griese 1977; Krapu and Green 1978; Griese et al. 1980; Faanes 1981; Rundle and Fredrickson 1981; Kantrud and Stewart 1984; Sayre and Rundle 1984; Zimmerman 1984; Fredrickson and Reid 1986; Manci and Rusch 1988, 1989; Conway and Eddleman 1994; Crowley 1994; Conway 1995; Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a,b; Prescott et al. 2001). Virginia Rails also breed in wet meadows, fens, permanent wetlands, restored wetlands, freshwater impoundments, salt marshes, and in emergent vegetation along the banks of streams, rivers, or lakes (Griffing 1881; Beattie 1899; Batts 1958; Boyer and Devitt 1961; Post and Enders 1970; Griese 1977; Zimmerman 1977; Griese et al. 1980; Faanes 1981, 1982; Kantrud and Stewart 1984; Svedarsky 1992; VanRees-Siewert 1993; Hartman 1994; Schrieber 1994; Conway 1995; VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996; Schuster 1998; Whitt et al. 1999; Dault 2001; Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a; Prescott et al. 2001). Although water depths ≤15 cm are preferred, water >15 cm in depth will be more readily used if floating residual vegetation is present to allow rails to walk rather than to swim (Sayre and Rundle 1984, Johnson and Dinsmore 1985, Conway and Eddleman 1994, Conway 1995). Virginia Rails may be found in areas with water depths up to 71 cm (Horak 1964).

The presence of Virginia Rails in wetlands is closely tied to the presence of emergent vegetation and rails occur in a variety of emergent vegetation types (Kaufmann 1971; Stewart 1975; Zimmerman 1977; Faanes 1982; Johnson and Dinsmore 1986; Manci and Rusch 1988, 1989; Conway 1995; Faanes and Lingle 1995; Graetz et al. 1997; Naugle 1997; Ribic 1999; Dault 2001; Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a,b; Naugle et al. 2001). However, areas with extremely dense emergent vegetation generally are avoided because dense vegetation hinders movement (Johnson 1984, Conway and Eddleman 1994, Conway 1995). In Iowa, the presence of Virginia Rails was positively related to habitat diversity (measure of the evenness of the distribution of the vegetation zones [e.g., wet-meadow zone, shallow-marsh zone, deep-marsh zone, permanent-open-water zone; Stewart and Kantrud 1971]) and negatively related to percent open water (Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a). Virginia Rail density was positively related to the small areas of open water interspersed within the emergent vegetation zone of wetlands, with the area of wet-meadow vegetation cover, and with percent emergent vegetation cover (Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a,b). In another Iowa study, the presence of Virginia Rails was positively related to percent emergent vegetation cover in wetlands (Dault 2001). In South Dakota, presence of Virginia Rails in seasonal and semipermanent wetlands was positively related to the percent of wetland area that was vegetated and to the abundance of thick-stemmed plants (e.g., cattail [Typha spp.]) (Naugle 1997, Naugle et al. 2001). In Massachusetts, presence of Virginia Rails was positively associated with the area of cattail within wetlands and with the area of fine-leaved emergents (e.g., sedges [Carex spp.] and grasses [scientific names not given]) within wetlands (Crowley 1994).

Virginia Rails nest among various plant species, including sedge, cattail, bulrush (Schoenoplectus spp.), rush (Juncus spp.), cordgrass (Spartina spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), common reed (Phragmites australis), bittersweet (Celastrus spp.), sprangletop (Scolochloa festucacea), hairy whitetop (Cardaria pubescens), bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis), swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatis), and sweetflag (Acorus americanus) (Shaw 1887; Hathorn 1902; Burtch 1917; Mousley 1931, 1937, 1940; Allen 1934; Walkinshaw 1937; Wood 1937; Randall 1946; Provost 1947; Billard 1948; Berger 1951; Pospichal 1952; Tanner 1953; Tanner and Hendrickson 1954; Lindmeier 1960; Lowther 1961; Bent 1963; Horak 1964; Kaufmann 1971, 1989; Stabler and Kitzmiller 1971; Andrews 1973; Baird 1974; Glahn 1974; Stewart 1975; Tacha 1975; Griese 1977; Zimmerman 1977; Beule 1979; Johnsgard 1979, 1980; Griese et al. 1980; Kantrud and Higgins 1992; Conway and Eddleman 1994; Conway 1995). Virginia Rail nests are generally placed 3-30 cm above water that is 5-33 cm in depth; nests occasionally may be placed on damp or dry ground (Mousley 1937; Walkinshaw 1937; Wood 1937; Provost 1947; Billard 1948; Berger 1951; Pospichal 1952; Bent 1963; Andrews 1973; Baird 1974; Tacha 1975; Stewart 1975; Zimmerman 1977; Johnsgard 1979, 1980; Svedarsky 1992; Conway 1995). Virginia Rails avoid nesting near open water (Provost 1947, Andrews 1973), but will nest within 15 m of edges between vegetation types (Pospichal 1952, Glahn 1974, Conway 1995). Vegetation height at nest sites varies widely and is not a critical component of Virginia Rail habitat as long as some overhead cover is available (Johnson 1984, Johnson and Dinsmore 1986, Conway and Eddleman 1994, Conway 1995). Virginia Rails typically create a canopy of emergent vegetation over the nest, as well as ramps of vegetation that lead up to the nest from the water (Gillette 1897, Beattie 1899, Allen 1934, Walkinshaw 1937, Billard 1948, Tanner 1953, Stewart 1975). Nests occasionally are found in uplands, several meters away from wetland edges (Stewart 1975, Fuller et al. 1979). Inactive, multiple nests that serve as resting and feeding platforms may be constructed (Pospichal 1952, Pospichal and Marshall 1954, Conway 1995). Virginia Rails often nest in the same wetlands as Soras (Porzana carolina) and Least Bitterns (Ixobrychus exilis) (Billard 1948, Berger 1951, Pospichal 1952, Tanner and Hendrickson 1954, Glahn 1974, Johnson 1984). A table near the end of the account lists the specific habitat characteristics for Virginia Rails by study.

Postbreeding and migratory movements:
Virginia Rails often disperse from breeding wetlands in late summer (July and August) to either forage in adjacent upland habitat or to gather on large wetlands prior to fall migration (Pospichal 1952, Pospichal and Marshall 1954, Johnson 1984, Johnson and Dinsmore 1985). Concentrations of birds on large wetlands prior to fall migration may be related to decreasing water levels in smaller breeding wetlands (Conway 1995). In Iowa, postbreeding Virginia Rails were found from 1 to 6 km from the breeding wetland (Johnson 1984).

Migrating Virginia Rails may use shallowly flooded moist-soil impoundments or oxbow lakes (Rundle and Fredrickson 1981, Sayre and Rundle 1984, Vogel 1999). In Missouri, migrating Virginia Rails were most common in a moist-soil impoundment that had water depths ranging from 5 to 15 cm deep and that contained mixed stands of beggartick (Bidens spp.), lateflowering thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum), and barnyard grass (Echinochloa muricata and E. crusgalli) (Rundle and Fredrickson 1981). Rails most frequently occupied areas with mean water depths ≤5 cm and with emergent vegetation that was tall (>30 cm), dense (>30 contacts using the point-intercept method), and dominated by beggartick, broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), sedges (Carex spp. and Cyperus spp.), rushes, lateflowering thoroughwort, and annual grasses such as panicgrass (Panicum sp.) and crabgrass (Digitaria sp. and Echinochloa spp.) (Sayre and Rundle 1984). Virginia Rails using oxbow lakes along the Missouri River preferred water depths ranging from 0 to 8 cm and areas dominated by river bulrush (Schoenoplectus fluviatilis), knotweed (Polygonum spp.), and common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) (Vogel 1999).

Area requirements:


Virginia Rails occupy wetlands that range in size from small (<1 ha) to large (>20 ha) (Zimmerman 1977, Krapu and Green 1978, Brown and Dinsmore 1986, Gibbs et al. 1991, Daub 1993). In Iowa, frequency of occurrence of Virginia Rails was 92% in wetlands 1-4.9 ha, 5-10.9 ha, and 11-20 ha in size, 83% in wetlands >20 ha, and 42% in wetlands <1 ha in size (Brown and Dinsmore 1986). The home ranges of nine Virginia Rails during the brood-rearing season in Iowa averaged 0.18 ha; five individual male ranges averaged 0.16 ha and four individual female ranges averaged 0.22 ha (Johnson and Dinsmore 1985). In Arizona, Conway (1990) estimated mean daily movements and mean home range sizes for adult Virginia Rails in the early breeding season (March-April) and late breeding season (May-July). In the early breeding season, mean daily movement of eight rails was 66.8 m, and mean home range size for seven rails was 1.64 ha. In the late breeding season, mean daily movement of 12 rails was 68.8 m, and mean home range size for 10 rails was 1.56 ha.

Brood parasitism:
The Virginia Rail is considered an accidental host choice for the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater). Only one instance of brood parasitism has been reported; one Virginia Rail nest containing eight rail eggs and one Brown-headed Cowbird egg was found in Ontario (Friedmann et al. 1977). Soras may lay eggs in Virginia Rail nests and vice versa (Miller 1928, Allen 1934, Tanner 1953, Tanner and Hendrickson 1954, Conway 1995). Intraspecific brood parasitism in Virginia Rails also may occur (Tanner and Hendrickson 1954).

Breeding-season phenology and site fidelity:


Virginia Rails arrive on the breeding grounds from mid-March to late May and depart from mid-August to early November (Gillette 1897; Hathorn 1902; Hersey 1910; Cooke 1914; Allen 1934; Walkinshaw 1937; Billard 1948; Pospichal 1952; Pospichal and Marshall 1954; Tanner 1953; Tanner and Hendrickson 1954; Lindmeier 1960; Bent 1963; Parmelee et al. 1970; Kaufmann 1971, 1989; Andrews 1973; Baird 1974; Tacha 1975; Griese 1977; Griese et al. 1980; Faanes 1981; Janssen 1987; Manci and Rusch 1988; Conway 1995; Kent and Dinsmore 1996). The breeding season extends from mid-May to mid-August, and nest initiation peaks from mid-May through mid-June (Billard 1948, Stewart 1975, Kent and Dinsmore 1996). Virginia Rails may renest after the failure of an initial nest (Allen 1934, Walkinshaw 1937, Billard 1948, Pospichal 1952, Tanner and Hendrickson 1954, Lindmeier 1960, Krapu and Green 1978). Although data are limited, Virginia Rails generally are considered single-brooded (Conway 1995). Little is known about breeding-site fidelity. In Iowa, Tanner and Hendrickson (1954) banded Virginia Rails as juveniles or flightless adults, but none were recaptured in subsequent years. In Arizona, banded adults occupied the same breeding area for three consecutive years (Courtney J. Conway, U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Tucson, Arizona, pers. comm.).

Species response to management:
Virginia Rails favor wetlands with shallow water and with moderate ratios of emergent vegetation to open water, mudflat, and floating residual vegetation (Weller and Fredrickson 1973; Fredrickson and Reid 1986; Conway and Eddleman 1994; Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a,b). Favorable water levels and favorable proportions of vegetation cover and open water can be maintained by artificially manipulating water levels of wetlands or wetland complexes through the use of water control structures. In an experimentally manipulated wetland in Iowa, the density of Virginia Rails peaked the year of reflooding when the wetland was dominated by sparse and well-dispersed annuals and immature perennials. Rail density declined over the next three years as a dense bed of perennials became established, and then density increased over the next two years as the vegetation-to-water ratio approached 50:50 (Weller and Fredrickson 1973).

Little is known about the effects of burning, mowing, or grazing on Virginia Rails. Kantrud and Stewart (1984) suggested that occasional burning or grazing is required to maintain wetland vegetation in the best condition for many avian species, including rail species. When these management practices are conducted in a timely and well-planned manner, they can decrease the extent of monotypic stands of emergent vegetation and create openings in the vegetation, which can potentially increase biological productivity within shallow-water zones. Overgrazing of wetland vegetation by livestock during dry periods, however, may eliminate emergent vegetation needed for breeding (Marshall 1952). Boyer and Devitt (1961) suggested fencing wetlands where appropriate to exclude livestock. In Colorado, irrigation practices that resulted in mid-summer drying of wetlands caused premature concentrations and movements of rails in July and early August (Griese et al. 1980).

Some restored wetlands can provide nesting habitat for Virginia Rails (Svedarsky 1992, VanRees-Siewert 1993, Hartman 1994, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996, Schuster 1998, Dault 2001). In Iowa, Virginia Rails nested in one of six 2-yr-old restored wetlands and two of six 4-yr-old restored wetlands and were present on wetlands restored for 1-4 yr; the study did not examine restored wetlands older than 4 yr (VanRees-Siewert 1993, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996). In another Iowa study, Virginia Rails nested on six of eight natural wetlands, one of eight 4- to 6-yr-old restored wetlands, and three of eight 8- to 12-yr-old restored wetlands; the study did not examine restored wetlands older than 12 yr (Dault 2001). Virginia Rails were most likely to be detected in natural wetlands, followed by 8-12-yr-old restored wetlands and 4- to 6-yr-old restored wetlands. Presence of Virginia Rails was positively related to the number and total area of wetlands within 1500 m of the surveyed wetland, indicating that wetland restorations near or within wetland complexes might attract Virginia Rails (Dault 2001). Schuster (1998) found similar numbers of Virginia Rail nests in natural and restored wetlands in Iowa. In Indiana, Virginia Rails nested in two of 26 restored wetlands, whereas no nests were found in seven natural wetlands (Hartman 1994). Brady (1983) found that Virginia Rail densities were higher in natural semipermanent wetlands than in dug brood complexes (modified wetlands comprising a system of channels, ponds, and human-created islands to provide deep, open water and upland nesting areas for waterfowl), although they were relatively common in both habitats.

The effects of most pesticides and contaminants on rails is poorly studied. Thirteen months after 0.22 kg/ha DDT was experimentally applied to a 1.62-ha wetland, DDT residues from the fat of three Virginia Rails were 7.6 parts per million (ppm), 7.5 ppm, and 19.0 ppm, respectively (Meeks 1968). The study specifically examined the process of bioaccumulation and did not present information on toxicity levels for Virginia Rails. In Georgia, one Virginia Rail analyzed for mercury bioaccumulation contained 0.4 ppm mercury in its liver, which was below the allowable limit (0.5 ppm) for human consumption (Odom 1975). However, 69% of 13 Sora livers analyzed had mercury levels >0.50 ppm. Application of mosquito (Culicidae) control chemicals reduces the availability of potential invertebrate prey items for rails (Hanowski et al. 1997).

Virginia Rails commonly collide with utility wires or towers when flying low at night during migration and are susceptible to collisions with automobiles (Shaw 1887, Tordoff and Mengel 1956, Pulich 1961, Avery and Clement 1972, Crawford 1974, Odom 1975, Conway 1995). One adult female Virginia Rail was found impaled on a barbed wire fence in Iowa (Tanner 1953).

Effects of purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) invasion of wetlands on breeding Virginia Rails is unknown. In Michigan, Whitt et al. (1999) found a Virginia Rail nest in purple loosestrife habitat. Virginia Rails may be sensitive to human disturbance. In Massachusetts, Virginia Rail presence was negatively related to the number of human habitations within 500 m of wetland edges (Crowley 1994).

Management Recommendations:

The management recommendations that follow are based on the species' habitat requirements and may apply to the community of wetland bird species as a whole. Wetland loss and degradation should be avoided (Zimmerman 1977, Brown and Dinsmore 1986, Daub 1993, VanRees-Siewert 1993, Conway and Eddleman 1994, Faanes and Lingle 1995, Naugle et al. 2001). The long-term protection of wetlands can be achieved through conservation easements and purchases of wetland basins (Holliman 1977, VanRees-Siewert 1993, Conway and Eddleman 1994, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996, Weller 1999, Dault 2001). The ideal management strategy for waterbirds is to maintain wetland complexes and large wetlands or lakes (Kantrud and Stewart 1984, Brown and Dinsmore 1986, Fredrickson and Reid 1986, Daub 1993, Conway and Eddleman 1994, Weller 1999, Dault 2001, Naugle et al. 2001). Because of variation in water levels over seasons or years, wetland complexes are more likely to have at least some wetlands in a water and plant regime favorable to a particular species, thus ensuring diverse species' representation in a geographical area (Pospichal and Marshall 1954, Weller 1999). Dynamic and ephemeral habitats, such as mudflats, sandbars, and meadows subject to flooding, should also be protected, because these are important aspects to Virginia Rail breeding and foraging habitat (Conway and Eddleman 1994, Conway 1995, Weller 1999).

Where water-control structures allow for manipulation of water levels within wetlands and impoundments, conduct gradual drawdowns that encourage the growth of diverse stands of robust (e.g., cattail, river bulrush), moderately robust (e.g., hardstem bulrush, bur-reed), and fine (sedges) emergent vegetation as well as seed-producing annuals (e.g., knotweed [Polygonum]) (Johnson and Dinsmore 1986). Discourage the development of Stewart and Kantrud (1971) cover types 3 (centrally located expanse of open water surrounded by a peripheral band of emergent vegetation), and 4 (largely devoid of any kind of emergent cover); the former isolates potential breeding habitat from upland and wetland edge seed-producing plants, whereas the latter provides little suitable emergent habitat (Johnson 1984, Johnson and Dinsmore 1986). Generally, avian productivity and diversity are maximized in hemi-marsh situations (50:50 vegetation cover to water ratio), and these habitats are adequate for breeding rails. Conduct complete drawdowns during the fall and winter, or prior to 15 April, and then reflood so that some water is available between 15 April and 1 August to provide migrant, breeding, and brood-rearing habitat for rails (Andrews 1973, Griese 1977, Rundle and Fredrickson 1981, Johnson 1984, Johnson and Dinsmore 1986). If possible, divide a wetland into several independently controlled units to allow for biennial drawdowns (Andrews 1973). This practice allows total drawdowns of some wetlands and the maintenance of standing water in others. Fall flooding of robust emergents and perennials attracts migrating rails and also decreases the vigor of perennial species so that seed-producing annuals can become established in the spring to provide foraging habitat (Fredrickson and Reid 1986). Foraging habitat also may be created by shallowly flooding areas of heterogeneous topography or by conducting partial drawdowns of more homogeneous human-created wetlands; both of these techniques concentrate invertebrate prey (Fredrickson and Reid 1986, Conway and Eddleman 1994, Conway 1995).

Prevent extensive lodging of emergent vegetation stands with residual stems because this can impede rail movement (Johnson 1984). Wetlands with dense stands of emergent vegetation that impede rail movement should be burned, disced, mowed, or plowed to set back succession and, if within a managed impoundment, should be reflooded to stimulate production of invertebrates (Johnson 1984, Kantrud and Stewart 1984, Conway and Eddleman 1994). To reduce woody invasion and stimulate the growth of robust annuals used by migrating rails, disc dry wetlands and then reflood with shallow (≤15 cm deep) water (Fredrickson and Reid 1986, Conway and Eddleman 1994).

Some restored wetlands can provide important breeding habitat for Virginia Rails (Svedarsky 1992, VanRees-Siewert 1993, Hartman 1994, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996, Schuster 1998, Dault 2001). Focus restoration efforts on providing a diverse vegetative community that closely resembles natural wetlands (Dault 2001). To promote quick response of wetland vegetation, restore recently (<30 yr ago) drained wetlands or wetlands that were not effectively drained, such as those typically used for pasture or hayfields for which there is less incentive to completely drain the area (Hemesath 1991, Hemesath and Dinsmore 1993). Active planting of wet-meadow species in restoration projects may be needed to attract wet-meadow nesting species such as rails and bitterns (VanRees-Siewert 1993, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996, Dault 2001). Revegetation of restored wetlands varies with duration of drainage, past herbicide use and cropping system, effectiveness of drainage, and isolation; consider these factors when selecting restoration sites (VanRees-Siewert 1993, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996). Dault (2001) suggested that >12 yr was needed to attain the full range of wetland bird species present on natural wetlands because species richness remained higher on natural than on restored wetlands 12 yr post restoration in Iowa. When feasible, restore wetlands within wetland complexes or those that are surrounded by a high density of wetlands in the landscape (VanRees-Siewert 1993, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996, Dault 2001, Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a). Restoring groups of wetlands of various types and sizes will provide habitat regardless of water conditions in a given year (Hemesath 1991, Hemesath and Dinsmore 1993, Dault 2001, Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a).

In general, avian mortality due to power line collisions can be reduced by placing utility lines several kilometers away from wetlands, waterfowl concentration areas, flyways, roosting areas, feeding areas, low passes, breeding areas, and especially paths between feeding and roosting or nesting areas (Thompson 1978, Malcolm 1982). Mortality due to fences can be reduced by reviewing fence construction plans and modifying plans for proposed management projects (i.e., replacing or removing dangerous fences) (Allen and Ramirez 1990). Fences placed through wetlands should be replaced or marked to make them conspicuous and to decrease likelihood of bird/fence collisions.


Table.  Virginia Rail habitat characteristics.

Author(s) Location(s) Habitat(s) Studied* Species-specific Habitat Characteristics
Allen 1934 Northern United States (exact location not given) River, wetland Nested in rushes (Juncus spp.), sedges (Carex spp.), and cattails (Typha spp.); protective cover was provided by vegetation that the rails bent over the nest
Andrews 1973 Ohio Wetland Nested in a combination of bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum) and bittersweet (Celastrus), and in bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis); nesting material was bluejoint and bur-reed; water depths at two nests were 0 cm (damp ground) and 6.4 cm; did not nest near open water; also were observed in cattail, crimsoneyed rosemallow (Hibiscus palustris), and bulrush (Schoenoplectus spp.)
Baird 1974 Kansas Impoundment Observed most frequently in cattail (43% of 145 observations) and cattail/softstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) (29%); remaining observations (28%) were in prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), alkali bulrush (Scirpus maritimus), inland saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), or combinations of these plant species; rails were most commonly observed in water 10-15 cm deep (42% of 145 observations) followed by 5-8 cm (29%), >15 cm (15%), 0-2.54 cm (12%), and dry land (2%); the one nest found was located in prairie cordgrass, 25 cm above water that was 5 cm deep
Batts 1958 Michigan Riparian Nested among grass (species not given) clumps at the edge of a group of cattails growing along the shore of the Huron River
Beattie 1899 Ontario Riparian Nested along the bank of a river in a "clump of weeds" over 15-cm-deep water; nests were concealed using stems of emergent vegetation that were bent over the nest
Bent 1963 Range-wide Wetland Nested in freshwater wetlands; nests were located in cattail over standing water and were sometimes located on the ground at the edge of the wetland; one nest was located 30 cm above water that was 15 cm deep; other nests were not described
Berger 1951 Michigan Wetland Nested in isolated clumps of sedge or in combinations of cattail and sedge; nests were elevated 5-13 cm above water
Beule 1979 Wisconsin Wetland Of 10 nests, three were in cattail, three in sedges, two in other species of vegetation (not defined), one in bur-reed, and one in softstem bulrush
Billard 1948 Connecticut Wetland Of 24 nests, nine nests were on hummocks of upright sedge (Carex stricta) or upright sedge and cattail, six were in sedges and cattail, six were in reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), two were in sedges, and one was in cattail; nests were woven baskets of cattail, grasses (scientific name not given), upright sedge, beaked sedge (Carex rostrata), or shallow sedge (Carex lurida); nests commonly had ramps of emergent vegetation from the water to the nest rim; ramps were typically 5 cm wide and 30 cm long; a canopy of overhead vegetation was usually created over the nest; mean height from the water's surface to the nest rim ranged from 13 to 25 cm and averaged 16 cm for 17 nests; water depth at nest sites ranged from 6.6 to 15 cm
Brady 1983 South Dakota Wetland, wetland (modified) Densities were higher in natural wetlands than in dug brood complexes (modified wetlands comprising a system of channels, ponds, and human-created islands to provide deep, open water and upland nesting areas for waterfowl), but rails were relatively common in both habitats
Brown and Dinsmore 1986 Iowa Wetland Frequency of occurrence was 92% in wetlands 1-4.9 ha, 5-10.9 ha, and 11-20 ha in size, 83% in wetlands >20 ha, and 42% in wetlands <1 ha in size
Burtch 1917 New York Wetland Nested in cattail and in sweetflag (Acorus americanus)
Conway 1990 Arizona Wetland Mean daily movement of eight rails in the early breeding season (March-April) was 66.8 m; mean home range size for seven rails was 1.64 ha.  Mean daily movement of 12 rails in the late breeding season (May-July) was 68.8 m; mean home range size for 10 rails was 1.56 ha
Conway 1995 Range-wide Lake, wetland Preferred freshwater wetlands, but also nested in brackish or salt marshes; commonly occupied moist-soil emergent wetlands and edges of seasonal or semipermanent wetlands and lakes; breeding habitat was characterized by shallow (≤15 cm deep) water; high invertebrate abundance; and 40-70% vegetative cover interspersed with open water, mudflats, and/or matted vegetation; nested in various species of robust emergent vegetation (e.g., cattail or bulrush); nests were built on the surface of the water, slightly submerged below, or <15 cm above the water's surface; water depth at nest sites was usually <30 cm, but ranged from 0 to 71 cm; nests were commonly placed near a vegetative border, but not near open water
Conway and Eddleman 1994 Range-wide Wetland Occurred in seasonal and semipermanent freshwater wetlands with areas of dense (not defined), residual vegetation interspersed with open water and mudflats; optimal habitat was characterized by 40-70% (optimally 60%) of the wetland in robust emergent vegetation interspersed with open water, mudflat, or floating residual vegetation mats; nested in various robust (e.g., cattail or bulrush) emergent plant species
Crowley 1994 Massachusetts Wetland Presence within wetlands was positively related to area of cattail, area of fine-leaved emergents (e.g., sedges and grasses), and water pH; presence was negatively related to the number of human habitations within 500 m of wetland edges; mean habitat values at 230 flush locations were 50% cattail, 31% fine-leaved emergents, 6% shrub, 4% purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), 3% scrub, 2% cover of pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)/arrowhead (Sagittaria), 2% common reed (Phragmites australis), 2% decodon (Decodon), and 13.3 cm water depth
Daub 1993 Manitoba Wetland Were present in all wetland size classes examined (<1 ha,1-2.9 ha, 3-5.9 ha, and 6-20 ha)
Dault 2001 Iowa Wetland, wetland (restored) Nested on eight natural wetlands, three wetlands restored for 8-12 yr, and one wetland restored for 4-6 yr; restored wetlands older than 12 yr were not examined; rails were most likely to be detected in natural wetlands, followed by wetlands restored for 8-12 yr and wetlands restored for 4-6 yr; presence was positively related to percent emergent vegetation cover and to the number and total area of wetlands within 1500 m of the surveyed wetland
Delphey 1991 Iowa Wetland, wetland (restored) Occurred in natural wetlands but not in restored wetlands
Faanes 1981 Minnesota, Wisconsin Stream, wet meadow, wetland Greatest densities occurred in seasonal and semipermanent wetlands dominated by cattail, river bulrush (Schoenoplectus fluviatilis), and common reed; occasionally nested along well-vegetated streams in sedge meadow and in wetlands in shrub carr habitat
Faanes 1982 North Dakota Wetland Nested in dense (not defined) emergent vegetation associated with permanent wetlands
Faanes and Lingle 1995 Nebraska Wetland Occurred in dense (not defined) emergent vegetation along the perimeter of wetlands, such as hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus), cattail, and common reed
Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001a Iowa Wetland, wetland (restored) Were more likely to occur in natural than in restored wetlands; occurrence was positively related to habitat diversity (measure of the evenness of the distribution of the vegetation zones [e.g., wet-meadow zone, shallow-marsh zone, deep-marsh zone, open-water zone; Stewart and Kantrud 1971]) and negatively related to percent open water; densities were positively related to the area of open water within the emergent vegetation zone of the wetland and to percent emergent vegetation cover
Fairbairn and Dinsmore 2001b Iowa Wetland Densities were positively associated with area of the wetland dominated by wet-meadow vegetation and with the area of open water within the emergent vegetation zone of the wetland
Fuller et al. 1979 North Dakota Wetland One upland nest was found in a field seeded to native grasses and alfalfa (Medicago sativa), and it was 25 m from the edge of a wetland
Gibbs et al. 1991 Maine Wetland Occupied wetlands contained more hectares of vegetation from the heath family (Ericaceae) than unoccupied wetlands (3.3 ha vs. 0.85 ha); mean percent cover at eight occupied wetlands averaged 24% floating or submerged vegetation, 22% emergent vegetation, 21% open water, 18% ericaceous (Ericaceae) vegetation, 12% alder (Alnus), and 8% timber; occupied wetlands averaged 17.8 ha in size, 734 m to the next nearest wetland, 365 m to the nearest road, 6.57 pH, and 47.36 Ás conductivity
Glahn 1974 Colorado Wetland Territories were dominated by cattail; 15 of 18 territories were bordered by bulrush, common spikerush (Eleocharis palustris), saltgrass, and mudflat and three territories were entirely within cattail; nests were constructed of and supported by cattail; seven of nine nests were ≤15 m from a vegetation edge along territory boundaries and two were >15 m from a vegetation edge
Graetz et al. 1997 Wisconsin Wetland Were more common in cattail stands (10-19 individuals detected during 10 surveys) than in sedge stands (7-8 individuals), stands of multiple plant species (4-13 individuals), or bulrush stands (0 individuals)
Griese 1977, Griese et al. 1980 Colorado Impoundment, wet meadow, wetland Occupied wetlands and impoundments from 1120 to 2730 m in elevation; preferred wetlands dominated by cattail with shallow water (≤15 cm deep) for breeding; water depth averaged 7.1 cm at nine nests; rails also used wet meadows and wet meadows associated with irrigated hayfields at upper (>2600 m) elevations
Hartman 1994 Indiana Wetland, wetland (restored) Occurred in one of seven natural wetlands and in five of 26 restored wetlands; nested in two of 26 restored wetlands; no nests were found in natural wetlands
Horak 1964 Iowa Wet meadow, wetland Of 21 nests, 14 were located in cattail, three in hairy whitetop (Cardaria pubescens), two in reed (Phragmites sp.), and two in sedges; of 21 nests, 11 were made of cattail, five of sedges, and five of hairy whitetop; vegetation coverage averaged 67% cattail, 14% hairy whitetop, 10% phragmites, and 9% sedge; vegetation height at nests averaged 119 cm and ranged from 61 to 183 cm; water depth at nest sites averaged 41 cm and ranged from 10 to 71 cm; ramps leading up to the nest rim were rarely observed
Johnsgard 1979, 1980 Great Plains Wetland Nested in wetlands with extensive stands of emergent vegetation (cattails, common reed, bulrush [Scirpus spp.], and sedge); nests were built on wet ground or over shallow (not defined) water in emergent vegetation
Johnson 1984; Johnson and Dinsmore 1985, 1986 Iowa Wetland Occupied sites with standing water; mean distances of 147 territory centers to nearest physiographic features were 29.5 m to open water, 17.1 m to upland, 38.4 m to a vegetation interface, and 12.9 m to a cattail stand; preferred sedges, hardstem bulrush, and bur-reed over cattail, river bulrush, and other wetland vegetation; in the first year of study, mean percent coverages of emergent vegetation for 371 occupied sites were 50% cattail, 22% bur-reed, 18% sedges, 5% miscellaneous, 4% hardstem bulrush, and 1% river bulrush; in the second year, mean percent coverages of emergent vegetation for 320 occupied sites were 66% cattail, 17% sedges, 7% miscellaneous, 5% bur-reed, 3% river bulrush, and 2% hardstem bulrush; mean vegetation measurements of 957 quadrats on 92 territories were 131.3 cm visual obstruction, 116 stems/m², 40.3 cm water depth, and a category 2.4 (scale of 0-4 indicating low to high amounts) for amount of floating or submersed residual vegetation; mean frequency of occurrence of emergent plant species on 957 quadrats at 92 territories was 73% cattail, 53% sedges, 45% bur-reed, 41% knotweed (Polygonum spp.), 14% river bulrush, 12% hardstem bulrush, 12% arrowhead, 3% miscellaneous, and 0.1% common reed; estimated brood-rearing home range size for nine rails (both sexes combined) was 0.18 ha; brood-rearing home range sizes for five males and four females were 0.16 ha and 0.22 ha, respectively; mean distance moved between locations for nine rails was 43 m; breeding home ranges were bounded by open water and upland
Kantrud and Higgins 1992 Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota Wet meadow, wetland Nested in wet-meadow zones of wetlands; prairie cordgrass dominated eight of 10 nest sites and forbs (species not specified) surrounded the other two nest sites; all nest sites had visual obstruction readings of at least 10 cm
Kantrud and Stewart 1984 North Dakota Wetland complex Highest density was in fens, followed by semipermanent and seasonal wetlands
Kaufmann 1971, 1989 Iowa, Minnesota Wetland Of 141 nests, 100 were in robust vegetation (e.g., cattail), 28 were in fine vegetation (e.g., sedges), and 13 were stands of multiple plant species
Manci and Rusch 1988, 1989 Wisconsin Wetland Densities were higher in deep-water cattail habitat (characterized by a mean water depth of 29 cm) than in shallow-water cattail habitat (characterized by mean water depths of 7-10 cm) or in shallow-water river bulrush habitat (characterized by mean water depths of 7-10 cm)
Mousley 1937 Canada (province not given) Wetland One nest was composed of cattail and grasses (species not given) and was located in growing cattails; the nest rim was 16.5 cm above water
Mousley 1940 Canada (province not given) Wetland Nested in cattails, sedges, and rushes
Naugle 1997, Naugle et al. 2001 South Dakota Wetland Presence in seasonal and semipermanent wetlands was positively related to percent of wetland area that was vegetated and to the abundance of thick-stemmed plants (e.g., cattail)
Pospichal 1952, Pospichal and Marshall 1954 Minnesota Wetland Nested in cattail near (not quantified) open water or near an edge between two vegetation cover types; nests were either in contact with the surface of the water or extended slightly below the water's surface; multiple inactive nests were constructed and served as resting and feeding platforms; mean nest measurements for 12 nests were 12.8 cm (range of 5-21 cm) height of nest rim above water and 21.2 cm (range of 12-44 cm) water depth
Prescott et al. 2001 Alberta Wetland Were detected more often in permanent or semipermanent wetlands than in seasonal wetlands; 35 occupied wetlands had more open water (32.1% vs. 23.5%) and less shrub (5.1% vs. 9.9%) than 369 unoccupied wetlands
Ribic 1999 Wisconsin Wetland Were more likely to be detected (using call playback surveys) in areas dominated by cattail than in areas dominated by sedges
Provost 1947 Iowa Wetland Nested in hairy sedge (Carex lacustris); nests were constructed of hairy sedge and were protected by a canopy of vegetation; two nests were 10 cm above water that was 33 cm deep and were placed 18-25 m from open water
Rundle and Fredrickson 1981 Missouri Impoundment Water depths at eight flush locations ranged from 0 to 27 cm and averaged 7.3 cm; most rails (6 of 8) occurred in water ≤15 cm deep; were most common in a moist-soil impoundment with water depths of 5-15 cm and mixed stands of beggarticks (Bidens spp.), lateflowering thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum), and barnyard grass (Echinochloa muricata and E. crusgalli)
Sayre and Rundle 1984 Missouri Impoundment Overall, water depths ranged from 0 to 29.7 cm at 27 spring and fall flush sites, and 70% of 27 flush sites had <5 cm of water. During spring migration, mean water depth at 14 flush locations was 5 cm and mean vegetation height was 32 cm; of 11 rails, seven were flushed from water <5 cm deep, three were flushed from water 5-15 cm deep, and one was flushed from water >15 cm deep; six of 11 rails were flushed from vegetation <30 cm tall and five were flushed from vegetation >30 cm tall; eight of 11 rails were flushed from dense (number of contacts with a point-intercept sampling rod was >30) vegetation and three were flushed from sparse (5-30 contacts) vegetation; plant species associated with spring use sites included beggartick, broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), sedges (Carex spp. and Cyperus spp.), and rushes. During fall migration, mean water depth at 13 flush locations was 2.4 cm and mean vegetation height was 39 cm; of eight rails, seven were flushed from water <5 cm deep and one was flushed from water 5-15 cm deep; five of eight rails were flushed from vegetation >30 cm tall and three were flushed from vegetation <30 cm tall; seven of eight rails were flushed from dense vegetation and one was flushed from sparse vegetation; vegetation species associated with fall use sites included beggartick, lateflowering thoroughwort, and annual grasses such as panicgrass (Panicum sp.), and crabgrass (Digitaria sp. and Echinochloa spp.)
Schreiber 1994 Iowa Wetland, wetland (restored) Frequency of occurrence was significantly greater in natural wetlands than in restored wetlands
Schuster 1998 Iowa Wetland, wetland (restored) Nested in both natural and restored wetlands (numbers of nests not given)
Stabler and Kitzmiller 1971 Colorado Wetland One nest was located in dense (not defined) broad-leaved cattail (Typha latifolia); the nest was 30.5 cm above water that was 41 cm deep, was constructed of dead cattail leaves, and was secured to adjacent cattail stems
Stewart 1975 North Dakota Idle mixed-grass, idle tallgrass, wet meadow, wetland Nested in fens, seasonal wetlands, and fresh to brackish and subsaline semipermanent wetlands with moderately dense (not defined) stands of emergent vegetation; nests were usually partially domed with emergent stems and leaves; nested in stands of hardstem bulrush, a mixture of alkali bulrush and foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and in alkali bulrush; one nest was found in upland prairie, several meters away from the wet-meadow zone of a wetland; water depth at three nest sites were 0 cm (wet ground), 7.6 cm, and 19 cm
Stewart and Kantrud 1965 North Dakota Wetland Commonly occupy fresh through brackish semipermanent wetlands with either closed stands of emergent cover, clumps of emergent cover interspersed with open water, or with centrally located expanses of open water surrounded by peripheral bands of emergent vegetation
Svedarsky 1992 Minnesota Impoundment, wetland, wetland (restored) One nest was located in a restored wetland in a stand of hardstem bulrush, cattail, and sedge; the nest was 25 cm above water that was 27 cm deep
Tacha 1975 Kansas Wetland, wetland complex Occupied areas were dominated by alkali bulrush, cattail, softstem bulrush, prairie cordgrass, and inland saltgrass and were in areas with water 0 to 15 cm deep; of nine nests, five were constructed of dried grasses, sedges, or cattail and were above 3 cm of water; the remaining four nests were situated on or above dry ground
Tanner 1953, Tanner and Hendrickson 1954 Iowa Wetland Dominant vegetation at 37 nest sites was hairy sedge (24), hardstem bulrush and slender bulrush (Schoenoplectus heterochaetus) (four), river bulrush (four), cattail (three), sprangletop (Scolochloa festucacea) (one), and bluejoint (one); water depth at 27 nests ranged from 15 to 46 cm and averaged 31 cm; water depths at eight nests ranged from 29 to 56 cm and averaged 38 cm
VanRees-Siewert 1993, VanRees-Siewert and Dinsmore 1996 Iowa Wetland, wetland (restored) Nested in one of six 2-yr-old restored wetlands and two of six 4-yr-old restored wetlands; were present on wetlands restored for 1-4 yr (the study did not examine restored wetlands older than 4 yr); occurrence increased with wetland age
Vogel 1999 Missouri Impoundment, lake, wetland Mean habitat measurements at eight flush sites were 10% basal green vegetation cover, 43.3% basal litter cover, 13.3% green vegetation cover at 15 cm, 23.3% litter cover at 15 cm, 43.3% total overhead vegetation cover, and 37.7 cm vegetation height; water depth ranged from 0 to 8 cm and averaged 2.4 cm; flush sites were dominated by river bulrush, knotweed, or common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Walkinshaw 1937 Michigan Lake, wetland Nested in bulrush along the margin of a lake and in sedge, cattail, swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatis), and common reed in wetlands; 44 nests averaged about 14 cm above the surface of the water; water depth at 44 nest sites ranged from 10 to 25 cm; nests were usually covered by a canopy of rushes or sedges
Weller and Fredrickson 1973 Iowa Wetland Density peaked the year of reflooding, which coincided with the growth of sparse and well-dispersed annuals and immature perennials; density then declined for three years as a dense bed of perennials became established, and finally increased again for the next two years as the wetland approached a vegetation-to-open water ratio of 50:50; rails occurred in the peripheral emergent vegetation of the wetland
Whitt et al. 1999 Michigan Wet meadow, wetland Occurred in wet meadow, cattail, shrub, and purple loosestrife habitats; nested in an area dominated by purple loosestrife
Wood 1937 Pennsylvania Wetland Nested in cattail about 15 cm above the surface of the water
Zimmerman 1977 Range-wide Wetland Nested in sedge and cattail at the borders of freshwater wetlands; may use wetlands as small as 0.2 ha; occasionally nest in smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) in saltwater marshes; nests were located from 5 to 13 cm above the water and water depths at nest sites were generally 8-25 cm
Zimmerman 1984 Kansas Impoundment, lake, wetland Water depth at 14 occupied sites averaged 9.9 cm; at 43 occupied sites, water depths ranged from 7 to 27.7 cm, mean vegetation heights ranged from 56.9 to 109.8 cm, and mean percent open water ranged from 9.8 to 33.9%

* In an effort to standardize terminology among studies, various descriptors were used to denote the management or type of habitat. "Idle" used as a modifier (e.g., idle tallgrass) denotes undisturbed or unmanaged (e.g., not burned, mowed, or grazed) areas. "Idle" by itself denotes unmanaged areas in which the plant species were not mentioned. Examples of "idle" habitats include weedy or fallow areas (e.g., oldfields), fencerows, grassed waterways, terraces, ditches, and road rights-of-way. "Tame" denotes introduced plant species (e.g., smooth brome [Bromus inermis]) that are not native to North American prairies. "Hayland" refers to any habitat that was mowed, regardless of whether the resulting cut vegetation was removed. "Burned" includes habitats that were burned intentionally or accidentally or those burned by natural forces (e.g., lightning). In situations where there are two or more descriptors (e.g., idle tame hayland), the first descriptor modifies the following descriptors. For example, idle tame hayland is habitat that is usually mowed annually but happened to be undisturbed during the year of the study.


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