Philomachus pugnax

Male 26-30cm, female 20-24cm


This bird has a long neck, a short bill that curves very slightly downwards, and relatively long legs which vary in their orange-ness. Plumage is variable and changes seasonally. During summer, the male has mostly brown upperparts; many of the feathers are barred or black-tipped. When on breeding grounds, males are decorated with a coloured mane or ruff; colours vary, but each one is usually either black, white or chestnut. Female birds (Reeves) don't get this special crest; in summer they have pale underparts and grey-brown upperparts flecked with dark. Winter birds are grey-brown on top and pale below. Juvenile birds are similar to winter adult, though are buffish overall and feathers have lighter edges which create a scaly effect. When flying, birds reveal thin white bars on the wings and rounded sections bordering the rump.


For breeding it prefers lowland meadows and marshes which flood in the winter but make for good grazing during summer. They're attracted to the muddy margins of pools and lakes at other times.


Feeds alone or in small groups; it pecks gently at the surface of shallow water or mud as it searches for food. When flying, the long wings are casual with deep, gentle wingbeats. Males perform courtship ritual called lekking; they dance for the benefit of females, who pick one to pair with.


Eats insects and their larvae, particularly midges, craneflies and caddis flies. During migration diet also includes beetles, plants, small fish, shellfish and worms.


Nesting begins at the end of April or early May, after the first leks in April. Female usually lays 4 eggs which she incubates for 20-23 days. Hatchlings have a layer of down, and they depart the nest swiftly. Female feeds them for the initial days, after which they feed themselves; they can fly after about 25 days.


Primarily a passage migrant, though some birds are present in Britain year-round; there are two or three leks sighted each year, but few young come from them. Many juvenile birds visit the region from Scandinavia in summer; many then continue on to Africa. Approximately 800 birds spend winter in Britain.

Observation Tips

Migrant birds are more likely to be seen in autumn than in spring, and from these, juveniles are common. Freshwater coastal areas may provide viewing opportunities, though it's rare to see a Ruff with its colourful breeding crest in the region.


Predominately a silent bird, though it may utter a gentle 'tu-wit', particularly if alarmed.
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