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Booth Museum Bird of the Month, June 2022: Philomachus pugnax

Published by: Rebecca Lean

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For the return of our Bird of the Month series, we focus on the Ruff.

The Ruff is a migratory bird that spends northern winter in Africa and the tropics, and breeds in wetlands in the colder regions of Northern Eurasia. They are a wader bird, feeding in shallow water and wetland areas near the coast and lakes. They travel in very large flocks that can contain hundreds or even thousands of individual ruffs. One example from Senegal contained a million birds!

The female is called a Reeve and tends to be much smaller than the male. Whereas non-breeding ruffs have long necks with small heads and are light fawny brown in colour, the males develop impressive plumage during the breeding season (May- June) to attract mates (Reeves) in a competitive display known as ‘lekking’. They are one of the few birds that direct this display towards males rather than females.

There are three forms of male Ruff: satellitesterritorial males and faeders. Those with large white plumage are called satellites, and although not usually dominant enough to mate with Reeves will still attempt to couple. The territorial male has a dark neck ruff, and the faeder is a very rare variant with a plumage like the Reeves.

Famously associated with the elaborate stiff fabric ‘ruff’ collars worn during the Elizabethan era that ranged in size and pattern, there is debate whether the large collars were named after the bird or vice versa. Mostly likely this is where the bird got its name. The ruff’s original name, dating back to at least the 15th century, is the ree (derived from a term meaning ‘frenzied’). This name still relates to the female of the species, turning into the name Reeves.

Currently the Ruff has a population of 2 million, but in the last ten years the European population has declined by 30%. It has been suggested that the ruff might be a good indicator species for the monitoring of climate change due to its sensitivity to global warming and other changing conditions.

Rebecca Lean, Collections Assistant