1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ruff
RUFF, a bird so called from the very beautiful and remarkable frill of elongated feathers that, just before the breeding-season, grow thickly round the neck of the male, who is considerably larger than the female, known as the reeve. In many respects this species, the Tringa pugnax of Linnaeus and the Machetes pugnax of modern ornithologists, is one of the most singular in existence. The best account is that given in 1813 by G. Montagu (Suppl. Orn. Dictionary), who seems to have been struck by the peculiarities of the species, and, to investigate them, visited the fens of Lincolnshire, possibly excited thereto by the example of T. Pennant, whose information, collected there in 1769, was of a kind to provoke further inquiry, while Daniel (Rural Sports, iii. p. 234) had added some other particulars, and subsequently G. Graves in 1816 repeated in the same district the experience of his predecessors. Since that time the great changes produced by the drainage of the fen-country have banished this species from nearly the whole of it, so that R. Lubbock (Obs. Fauna of Norfolk, pp. 68-73) and H. Stevenson (Birds of Norfolk, ii. pp. 261–271) can alone be cited as modern witnesses of its habits in England, while the trade of netting or snaring ruffs and fattening them for the table has for many years practically ceased.
The cock bird, when, to use the fenman’s expression, he has not “his show on,” and the hen at all seasons, offer no very remarkable deviation from ordinary sandpipers; outwardly there is nothing, except the unequal size of the two sexes, to rouse suspicion of any abnormal peculiarity. But when spring comes all is changed. In a surprisingly short time the feathers clothing the face of the male are shed, and their place is taken by papillae or small caruncles of bright yellow or pale pink. From each side of his head sprouts a tuft of stiff curled feathers, while the feathers of the throat change colour, and beneath and around it sprouts the frill or ruff already mentioned as giving the bird his name. The feathers which form this remarkable adornment are, like those of the “ear-tufts,” stiff and incurved at the end, but much longer—measuring more than 2 in. They are closely arrayed, capable of depression or elevation, and form a shield to the front of the breast impenetrable by the bill of a rival. More extraordinary than this, from one point of view, is the great variety of coloration that obtains in these temporary outgrowths. Considering the really few colours that the birds exhibit, the variation is something marvellous, so that fifty examples may be compared without finding a very close resemblance between any two of them, while the individual variation is increased by the “ear-tufts,” which generally differ in colour from the frill. The colours range from deep black to pure white, passing through chestnut or bay, and many tints of brown or ashy-grey, while often the feathers are more or less closely barred with some darker shade, and the black is very frequently glossed with violet, blue or green—or, in addition, spangled with white grey or gold-colour. The white, on the other hand, is not rarely freckled, streaked, or barred with grey, rufous-brown or black. In some examples the barring is most regularly concentric, in others more or less broken-up or undulating, and the latter may be said of the streaks. It was ascertained by Montagu, and has since been confirmed by A. D. Bartlett, that every ruff assumes tufts and frill exactly the same in colour and markings as those he wore in the preceding season; and thus, polymorphic as is the male as a species, as an individual he is unchangeable. The white frill is said to be the rarest, and birds exhibiting it have white necks even in winter.
That all this wonderful “show” is the consequence of the polygamous habit of the ruff can scarcely be doubted. No other species of Limicoline bird has, so far as is known, any tendency to it. Indeed, in many species of Limicolae, as the dotterel, the godwits (q.v.), phalaropes and perhaps some others, the female is larger and more brightly coloured than the male, who in such cases seems to take upon himself some at least of the domestic duties. Both Montagu and Graves, to say nothing of other writers, state that the ruffs, in England, were far more numerous than the reeves; and their testimony can hardly be doubted; though in Germany J. F. Naumann (Vög. Deutschlands, vii. p. 544) considers that this is only the case in the earlier part of the season, and that later the females greatly outnumber the males. By no one have the ruff's characteristics been more happily described than by J. Wolley, in a communication to W. C. Lewiston (Eggs of Brit. Birds, 3d ed., p. 346), as follows:—
“The ruff, like other fine gentlemen, takes much more trouble with his courtship than with his duties as a husband. Whilst the reeves are sitting on their eggs, scattered about the swamps, he is to be seen far away flitting about in flocks, and on the ground dancing and sparring with his companions. Before they are confined to their nests, it is wonderful with what devotion the females are attended by their gay followers, who seem to be each trying to be more attentive than the rest. Nothing can be more expressive of humility and ardent love than some of the actions of the ruff. He throws himself prostrate on the ground, with every feather on his body standing up and quivering; but he seems as if he were afraid of coming too near his mistress. If she flies off, he starts up in an instant to arrive before her at the next place of alighting, and all his actions are full of life and spirit. But none of his spirit is expended in care for his family. He never comes to see after an enemy. In the [Lapland] marshes, a reeve now and then flies near with a scarcely audible ka-ka-kuk; but she seems a dull bird, and makes no noisy attack on an invader.”
The breeding-grounds of the ruff extend from Great Britain across N. Europe and Asia; but the birds become less numerous towards the E. They winter in India, reaching even Ceylon, and Africa as far as the Cape of Good Hope. The ruff also occasionally visits Iceland, and there are several well-authenticated records of its occurrence on the E. coast of the United States, while an example is stated (Ibis, 187 5, p. 332) to have been received from the N. of S. America. (A. N.)
- Internally there is a great difference in the form of the posterior margin of the sternum, as long ago remarked by Nitzsch.
- This “ruff” has been compared to that of Elizabethan or Jacobean costume, but it is essentially different, since that was open in front and widest and most projecting behind, whereas the bird's decorative apparel is most developed in front and at the sides and scarcely exists behind.