Last September, pondering the abundance of the lovely little sora in autumn marshes, we wondered what it meant that so many had once been “paddled” in Virginia’s Curl’s Neck Marsh. I even managed to make contact with a couple of outfitters who specialize in rail hunting. But the response was everywhere the same: It just meant that the rails had been taken from a boat.
Everywhere the same, and everywhere unsatisfactory. Here’s the real answer, from the Richmond Dispatch at the turn of the last century:
It is a saying often heard in the country, if not in the city, that “slapped” birds are much better than “shot” ones. This is to say that market hunters, of course, do not shoot their game, but kill them with a long paddle — eighteen feet long — with which they shove their boats through the marshes…. A slight blow from the heavy paddle “settles his hash forever,” as the country boy says…. The bird is not bruised, and is much to be preferred to the shot bird….
Not a very pretty picture, but at least now we know. And we know, too, what the witty rail hunter called himself a century ago: a “soracer.”
He stands [in the boat] and slaps the poor little things until his arms are tired. Such a night as this he is apt to kill fifteen or twenty dozen.
Our reporter goes on to tell us that a dozen soras fetch 50 cents at the market, and that “the good soracer” earns 50 to 75 dollars in September and October. Do the math: That’s 24 birds to the dollar, or 1200 to 1800 rails a season for the skilled paddler.
I can only repeat what I said last year at this time: That’s a lot of soras.