Birdwatch: the ruff – which was named first, the collar or the bird?

Sporting the splendid feathery collars that give the ruff its name, they reminded me of the foppish, preening courtiers of Tudor times.

This trio of male ruffs, along with a much smaller female (known as a reeve) were frantically feeding at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve. This is one of their favoured stopover points on their long journey north, from Africa to the Arctic tundra.

Once they arrive there, the males will gather in a “lek”: a communal display area where they perform their elaborate courtship rituals, seeking to intimidate their rivals and attract a mate.

Lekking, a behaviour shared with the black grouse and capercaillie, is not the ruff’s only curious feature. You might be forgiven for assuming these males belonged to three completely different species: one’s ruff was almost black; another had a striking white patch across its face; while the third showed rich chestnut tones.

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One question remains: was the bird named after the ornate lace collar, or the collar named after the bird? With other species whose names are synonyms with familiar objects – such as the kite and crane – we know the bird’s name came first. With the ruff, we cannot be so sure.

But either way, watching these striking birds here on the Somerset Levels was an unexpected, and very welcome, delight.


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