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Ruff  (Philomachus pugnax)  Male Breeding Plumage | by Brian Carruthers-Dublin-Eire
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Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) Male Breeding Plumage

At Broadmeadows Estuary

Swords, Co.Dublin, Ireland


Charadriiformes | [family] Scolopacidae | [latin] Philomachus pugnax | [UK] Ruff | [FR] Combattant varié | [DE] Kampfläufer | [ES] Combatiente | [IT] Combattente | [NL] Kemphaan


spanwidth min.: 54 cm

spanwidth max.: 60 cm

size min.: 29 cm

size max.: 32 cm


incubation min.: 20 days

incubation max.: 23 days

fledging min.: 25 days

fledging max.: 28 days

broods 1

eggs min.: 2

eggs max.: 4


Philomachus pugnax




Fighting Ruff, Oxen-and-Kine, Reeve (female)


Status: Scarce spring & autumn passage migrant - occurs while moving from Siberia/Central Europe south to winter in Africa.


Conservation Concern: Green-listed in Ireland. The European population has been evaluated as Declining, due to a moderate recent decline.


Identification: Though a distinctive wader, with a large body, smallish head, long neck and pointed, slightly decurved bill, individual Ruffs vary enormously in size and colour. Firstly males are approximately one third bigger than females (which are known as Reeves) - males being slightly larger than Redshank, while females are close to Dunlin-sized. Leg colour can be yellow, dull greenish yellow, orange or red. Bill can be all dark or show varying amounts of red or orange - often there is a white area of feathering around the base of the bill. Though males in full summer plumage are rarely seen in Ireland, this too is highly variable - the flamboyant ruff collar of chestnut red or black or even white is purely for display at the breeding ground. Occasionally, spring birds on passage may show a hint of these exotic colours, but the most usual plumage of birds seen here is of darkish brown wing and back feathers, each finely edged pale buff, creating a scaly effect, while the underparts are rather plain whitish, with a warm buff or creamy wash. In flight, a slow, almost floppy wingbeat is characteristic and the dark-centred rump with white ovals either side is a helpful identification feature. Not common, but can occur in small flocks in marshes, fields and mudflats - mainly spring and autumn.


Call: Almost silent.


Diet: Feeds on Invertebrates found in mudflats.


Breeding: Does not breed in Ireland. Passage birds seen in Ireland breed in meadows and bogs in Scandinavia and Russia.


Wintering: Small numbers winter on estuaries along the southern coast of Ireland. The majority of the European population winters around the Mediterranean and western Africa.


Where to see: Tacumshin & Lady's Island Lake (County Wexford), Malahide Estuary (County Dublin), Dundalk Docks (County Louth). Other sites for small numbers include Ballycotton (County Cork) and Kilcoole (County Wicklow) are the most regular sites.



Physical characteristics


Male Ruffs are highly distinctive in breeding plumage, although that is not generally the plumage that we see when this Eurasian shorebird visits Washington. The adult male varies in color from dark rufous to light brown with considerable white. It has a thick mane of long feathers around its neck and thick head-feathers that can be puffed out. The female, called a Reeve, is mottled brown-and-buff with orange legs (sometimes olive or green). Females and males in non-breeding plumage appear similar, and both have orange bills with white feathers at the bases. The female is about the size of a dowitcher, and the male is similar in size to a Greater Yellowlegs. The juvenile, the form most likely to be seen in Washington, has lighter, more yellow legs than adults. Its breast is clear buff, and its belly grades from buff to white. The head is buff and mostly unstreaked, and the back is black edged with buff. In flight, the Ruff shows a white 'U' on its tail, separating a dark rump and dark tail-tip.

In fresh water, Ruffs are often seen wading up to their bellies, but in salt water they usually stay above the shoreline, in habitat similar to that used by Pectoral Sandpipers. They walk or run at a steady pace, with their heads up, picking food from the substrate. They also sometimes probe in the mud and walk slowly through vegetation with their heads down.




Ruffs breed in sub-Arctic and Arctic tundra meadows in northern Europe and Siberia. They winter primarily in similar open, wetland habitats in southern Europe and Africa, and to a lesser degree in southern Asia and Australia. During migration, they can be found in these habitats as well as coastal ponds, lagoons, estuaries, and mudflats. These coastal wetlands are the Washington habitats where Ruffs are most likely to be spotted.


Other details


This wader is breeding nearly throughout Eurasia, from the British Isles to Kamchatka, reaching 60°N. Northern birds inhabit tundra and swampy clearings of forested regions. Birds of the south-west, e.g. the Netherlands, inhabit wet grasslands. Most of the populations winter in sub-Saharan Africa. This species doesn't live in pairs, and during the breeding period the males gather in arenas. A census of these males doesn't necessarily indicate the number of breeding females. Males and females also migrate separately, at different times and following different routes as well. Populations of this species are consequently difficult to estimate. The term "breeding pairs" is used only for convenience and uniformity. The population of the European Union (12 Member States) is estimated at 2000-3000 pairs, which represents only a very small fraction of the global European population estimated at 3.28 millions of pairs. However large, this population is declining following wetland reclamation and intensification of agriculture




Ruffs eat a typical shorebird diet of insects and other invertebrates. During migration and winter, they may also eat seeds.




This species has a large range, with an estimated global Extent of Occurrence of 1,000,000-10,000,000 km2. It has a large global population estimated to be 2,000,000 individuals1. There is evidence to suggest that the European population (200,000-510,000 pairs, occupying 50-74% of the global breeding range) has declined by up to 30% over ten years (three generations)2, but this may reflect shifts in breeding populations3, populations in Asia are not thought to be declining4,5 and wintering populations in Africa appear to be increasing6. The species is therefore not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern. [conservation status from]




Male Ruffs gather into groups in concentrated areas called leks, to display and attract females. The female comes to a lek and chooses a male. The female mates with a male and then leaves the lek. As is typical in this type of mating, the male provides no parental care. The female builds her nest on the ground, hidden in grass or marsh vegetation. The nest is a shallow depression lined with grass. She lays four eggs and incubates them for 20 to 23 days. The female feeds the newly hatched young, which is unusual for this group. The young first begin to fly at 25 to 28 days.




Migratory. Though total winter range extends from western Europe and West Africa eastwards to India (and rarely further east), by far the largest numbers winter in Africa and these include even birds from north-east Siberia (those reaching South Africa having travelled 15 000 km). Having no share in nest or chick care, males disperse late June to early July; females and juveniles begin migrating in July. Main movements across temperate Europe from end July to mid-September, though exodus on reduced scale continues to mid-November. First males reach Sénégal mid-July; trans-Saharan passage noted central Chad from 20 August, with peak in 2nd week September. In Africa and southern Europe, return movement begins mid-February, with main exodus March and first half April; obscured, however, by large numbers of non-breeders which summer in winter quarters (even south of Equator). Breeding areas reoccupied from mid-April around North Sea, but progressively later to north and east-mid-June (even later in cold springs) in Siberia.


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Taken on June 19, 2017