1902 Encyclopedia > 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 the majority of modern ornithologists, is one of the most singular in existence, and yet its singularities have been very ill appreciated by zoological writers in general. These singularities would require almost a volume to describe properly. The best account of them is unques-tionably that given in 1813 by Montagu (Suppl. Ore. Dictionary), who seems to have been particularly struck by the extraordinary peculiarities of the species, and, to investigate them, expressly visited the fens of Lincolnshire, possibly excited thereto by the example of Pennant, whose information, personally 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 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 Lubbock (Obs. Fauna of Norfolk, pp. 68-73) and Mr 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 out of his nuptial attire, or, to use the fenman's expression, when he has not " his show on," and the hen at all seasons, offer no very remarkable deviation from ordinary Sandpipers, and 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 papillm or small caruncles of bright yellow or pale pink. From each side of his head sprouts a tuft of stiff curled feathers, giving the appearance of long ears, 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, quite unique among birds, are, like those of the " ear-tufts," stiff and incurved at the end, but much longer—measuring more than two inches. 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. It has often been said that no one ever saw two Buffs alike. That is perhaps an over-statement; but, considering the really few colours that the birds exhibit, the variation is something marvellous, so that fifty examples or more 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, and thus produce a combination of diversity. 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 the still wider experience and if possible more carefully conducted observation of Mr Bartlett, that every Buff in each successive year 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 in his wedding-garment —a lesson that might possibly be applied to many other birds. The white frill is said to be the rarest.

That all this wonderful "show" is the consequence of the polygamous habit of the Buff 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 Limicolx, as the Dotterel, the GODWITS (vol. x. p. 720), 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 Buffs, in England, were far more numerous than the Reeves; and their testimony can hardly be doubted; though in Germany Naumann (Yog. Deutschland's, vii. p. 544) considers that this is only the case in the earlier part of the season, and that later the females greatly out-number the males. It remains to say that the moral characteristics of the Eufi exceed even anything that might be inferred from what has been already stated. By no one have they been more happily described than by "Wolley, in a communication to Hewitson (Eggs of Brit. Birds, 3d ed., p. 346), as follows : —

"The Buff, 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 con-fined 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-Tca-kuk ; but she seems a dull bird, and makes no noisy attack on an invader."

Want of space forbids a fuller account of this extremely interesting species. Its breeding-grounds extend from Great Britain1 across northern Europe and Asia ; but the birds become less numerous towards the east. They winter in India, reaching even Ceylon, and Africa as far as the Cape of Good Hope. The Buff also occasionally visits Iceland, and there are several well-authenticated records of its occurrence on the eastern coast of the United States, while an example is stated (Ibis, 1875, p. 332) to have been received from the northern part of South America. (A. N.)

The above article was written by: Alfred Newton, F.R.S., Professor of Zoology, University of Cambridge.

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