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This highly gregarious sandpiper is migratory and sometimes forms huge flocks in its winter grounds, which include southern and western Europe, Africa, southern Asia and Australia. This species shows marked sexual dimorphism; the male is much larger than the female (the reeve), and has a breeding plumage that includes brightly coloured head tufts, bare orange facial skin, extensive black on the breast, and the large collar of ornamental feathers that inspired this bird's English name.
Outside the breeding season, the typical male's head and neck decorations and the bare facial skin are lost and the legs and bill become duller.
The upperparts are grey-brown, and the underparts are white with grey mottling on the breast and flanks.
In breeding plumage, she has grey-brown upperparts with white-fringed, dark-centred feathers.
Predators of wader chicks and eggs include mammals such as foxes, feral cats and stoats, and birds such as large gulls, corvids and skuas.
The ruff forages in wet grassland and soft mud, probing or searching by sight for edible items.