Rail Bird Hunting
The Boat, the River, and the Bird

Theme: Maritime History

Author: Laurie Pettigrew, Senior Wildlife Biologist
New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife
Christine Raabe, Education Consultant

Subject Areas
Language Art, Science, Art

One or two class periods

Indoors or outdoors*

* Simulated field trip with guided imagery and story telling

Critical listening, interpreting, visualizing, applying, describing

Charting the Course
The traditional sport of rail bird hunting is indicative of the historical use of the Maurice River. The Camp family is exclusively and intimately intertwined with all aspects of this recreational activity. The Camp family still organizes hunts and has exclusive domain over rail bird hunting to this day. Included in this activity is a descriptive account of the personal experience of Pete Dunne (New Jersey Audubon Society) on a recent rail bird hunting excursion. This activity examines the various components of this traditional and cultural significant use of the area’s resources. Through visualizing the details described by Pete Dunne, the students will re-create an illustration of rail bird hunting, using an actual diagram of the Camp rail bird boat.

Rail bird, and others as required for interpretation of the story, although most are defined by context clues within the writing of Pete Dunne

Correlation to NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards
Language Arts: 3.2 (1,2,3,5,6,7), 3.4 (1,2,3,8,9,15), 3.5 (1,2,5,6,7,10,12)
Science: 5.12 (1,2,4,5,6)
Art: 1.2 (1,2,3,4), 1.3 (1,2), 1.5 (4)


Students will:

Describe and illustrate the tradition of rail bird hunting including habitat, techniques, and behavior of the birds, the boat, and the hunter based on a simulated field trip


Copy of rail bird boat handout


Art supplies including watercolor paints or other preferred medium for illustration

Large roll of paper for mural (optional)

Making Connections

Rail bird hunting has been a long standing tradition in the Down Jersey region.

An excerpt from Tide and Time by Pete Dunne, Charting a Course for the Delaware Bay Watershed, Harriet B. Honigfeld, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, 1997.

“Every year for four generations, the Camps of Port Elizabeth have poled gunners through the stands of wild rice that lines the banks of the Maurice River. When the axis of the earth inclines toward autumn and the winds turn chill, rail birds migrate south. They reach Delaware Bay’s marshes after a night of travel and gather in the rice beds, feasting on the grains. This is why sportsmen the world over travel to this obscure Bayshore community and for seventy-five dollars secure the services of the Camps — ‘for a (full) tide.’

“President Benjamin Harris hunted these marshes a century ago and maybe he was pushed by a Camp. Teddy Roosevelt, the president who championed wildlife conservation, was likewise drawn, as was Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins. So enamored of this esoteric brand of bird hunting was Eakins that he depicted the pageant no fewer than six times. What sort of bird can claim the favor of presidents and painters and place them in collusion with New Jersey baymen? Why, the sora rail, a small, chicken-like marsh bird that lofts into the air like a grasshopper, flies like the Wright Brothers, and falls like a stone a split instant before gunners loosen the charge of shot that passes, often as not, cleanly over the backs of the birds.

“In the last quarter of the 19th century, over a hundred thousand soras a year were taken from the marshes flanking the Maurice —most by the 200-odd members of the long-ago disbanded West Jersey Game Protection Society. On one momentous tide, members were reported to have downed 21,000 birds — 365 felled by a single gun.

“But this blend of innocence and slaughter died with the opulent century that spawned such excesses. As recorded in the ledgers of Ken Camp, an environmentally tempered 1,500 birds a year are currently killed by gunners, an average of ten birds per boat. While this may sound generous in an age where a single black duck constitutes the legal limit and canvasback may not be hunted at all, Ken Camp allows that the number of birds killed is consistent year to year. The host of birds and the harvest has fallen into harmony.

“In all of North America, there are but a handful of coastal reaches where rails are still hunted in the traditional fashion. In New Jersey, only one. Here. Along the banks of the Maurice River . . . ”


Hints for Using Simulated Field Trips

The following is reprinted from Project WILD, pages 348-349

Western Regional Environmental Education Council, 1992.

A simulated field trip is a powerful way for students to create vivid experiences in their mind’s eye. Many older people remember when the major form of entertainment was radio. With radio and its absence of visual images, many listeners were forced to create mental pictures of the way various characters looked and acted. It was common for listeners to see landscapes, cities, and any number of exotic settings. Often one hears teachers and parents claim that radio helped make students more creative as it required the listeners to stretch their imaginations. Many neuroscientists concur.

Research has shown that, with their eyes closed, people activate parts of their brain-mind systems that are often left unstimulated. When we picture things in our minds, we call parts of our brains into activity that are unused in reading or writing. Studies show skill in picturing things in our minds enhances our ability to enrich reading and to increase skill and imagination in writing. The capacity to remember concepts, words, names and ideas is enhanced. Dramatic results have been achieved when these approaches are combined with medicine. In many instances, life-threatening illnesses have been reversed and overcome.

The use of simulated field trips for instructional purposes is promising to become one of the most effective educational strategies of the past two decades. The following guidelines provide a basic, useful approach to the use of simulated field trips as a teaching tool.

  1. Ask students to lay aside all pens, pencils, books, etc.
  2. Instruct the students to sit in a comfortable and relaxed position with their eyes closed.
  3. Wait until you see a general state of relaxation before beginning.
  4. Using a steady and paced reading and speaking style, begin offering students the narrative. Remember to speak slowly and steadily. If you want students to create rich mental pictures, you must allow them time to do so. It takes about as much time to observe mental images as it does to carefully review actual physical settings.
  5. Once the narrative is finished, invite the students to review all of the images they saw in their minds. Again, try to allow enough time for an adequate visual review — and remember, the review takes time.
  6. After an adequate time for mental review (at least one minute and possibly two minutes), ask the students to open their eyes.
  7. Begin discussing the simulated field trip in terms of the instructional purpose for its use.

In some cases, the process serves simply to provide a visual review of some of the students’ past experiences. At other times, you are providing stimuli for the students to create original images. In any case, it is important to realize that there are no mistakes in mental images. What a student pictures is real. The images are data. If students create images that are inconsistent with what you expected, consider the images to represent differing perspectives rather than wrong answers. Try to honor and nourish variety as a means to add richness to the topics being explored.

In addition to serving as a powerful and effective way to explore and remember concepts, regular use of simulated field trips also tends to relax students. When relaxed, they will frequently be more productive in all academic areas — including scoring higher on standardized achievement tests.


Warm Up
Review Background information on Using Simulated Field Trips

If desired, show the segment of the video that deals with rail bird hunting.

The Activity

  1. Set the stage by preparing the students for a simulated field trip. Tell them that they will be hearing a personal account of the author’s experience with rail bird hunting.
  2. Read the passage about rail bird hunting by Pete Dunne included. Instruct students to create a mental image of what is being described and to include as many details as possible.
  3. After the simulated field trip is completed, instruct students — either individually or in groups — to create a picture or illustration of the rail bird hunt as it was described during the simulated field trip. Students should try to include as many details as possible and work toward creating a complete picture of all components described. Things to include (but not limited to): the boat, the habitat, the river, the bird, the hunters, the scene, etc.

Wrap Up
Discuss the various drawings/murals created by the class. Critique their artistic merit and accuracy in illustrating rail bird hunting and the Maurice River ecosystem.

Research the history of rail bird hunting and describe its relationship and significance to the region Down Jersey.


Participation in class discussion and creation of the mural and/or illustration.


Have students do other creative projects using the topic of rail bird hunting as a focus: poetry and stories. Students could make a mobile which includes all of the components of a rail bird hunt. Also, students could investigate and compare/contrast the other bird species that are (or were) regularly hunted along the tidal tributaries of the Delaware Estuary.

Utilize rail bird hunting as a focus for interviewing people that have been rail bird hunting before. See Activity: Saving Local History.

Please download the PDF for the complete Lesson Plan.


Charting a Course for the Delaware Bay Watershed, Honigfeld, Harriet B.
Published by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation Bamboo Brook
170 Longview Road
Far Hills, NJ 07931-2623 (908) 234-1225.
Copyright 1997.

Other books related to waterfowl hunting. See especially, Shorebird Decoy Activity.