REEVES (the first the male, the latter the female). Are birds of passage, and arrive in the fens of Lincolnshire, the Isle of Ely, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, in the spring, in great numbers. Pennant tells us, that in the course of a single morning there have been above six dozen caught in one net, and that a fowler has been known to catch between forty and fifty dozen in one season.
The ruff is scarcely so large as the common snipe, with a bill about an inch long. The face is covered with yellow pimples, and the back part of the head and neck are furnished with long feathers, standing out somewhat like the ruff worn by our ancestors: a few of these feathers stand up over each eye, and appear not unlike ears. The colours of the ruff are in no two birds alike: in general they are brownish and barred with black, though some have been seen that were altogether white. The lower parts of the belly and the tail coverts are white. The tail is longer than in the snipe, having the four middle feathers barred with black; the others are pale brown. The legs are of a greenish yellow, and the claws black. The female, which is called the reeve, is smaller than the male, of a light brown colour, and destitute of the ruff on the neck. The male bird does not acquire his ruff till the second season, being till that time, in this respect, like the female: as he is also from the end of June till the pairing season, when Nature clothes him with the rufF, and the red pimples break out on his face; but, after the time of incubation the long feathers fall off, and the carbuncles shrink in under the skin, so as not to be discerned.
According to the accounts of those who have written on the subject, the ruffs are much more numerous than the reeves; and that, on this account, severe contests frequently ensue between the males. The ruff chooses a stand on some dry bank near a plash of water, round which he runs so often as to make a bare circular path. The moment a female comes in sight, all the males within a certain distance commence a general battle, placing their bills to the ground, spreading their ruffs, and using the same action as a cock; and this opportunity is seized by the fowlers, who, in the confusion, catch them by means of nets in great numbers.
These birds are sometimes kept in a state of confinement, and fattened for the table with bread and milk, hemp-seed, and sometimes boiled wheat; but if expedition is required, sugar is added, which in a fortnight makes them a lump of fat. A remarkable trait in their character is, that they feed most greedily the moment they are taken; food placed before them is instantly contended for. Great nicety is requisite to kill them in the highest state of perfection : if the precise period be suffered to pass, the birds are apt to fall away. The method of killing them is by cutting off the head with a pair of scissors, and the quantity of blood that issues, considering the size of the bird, is very great. Like woodcocks, they are dressed with their intestines; and, when killed at the critical time, epicures declare them to be the most delicious of all morsels.
When in a state of confinement, it seems each ruff takes its stand in the room in the same manner as it would in the open fen; if another invades its circle, an attack is made, a battle ensues, and a whole room may be set into fierce contests by compelling them to move their stations. If the trough out of which they feed be not sufficiently large so as to admit the birds without touching each other, fierce contests immediately ensue; but it is not requisite that each bird should have a separate trough, or that they should be fed in the dark—notions which were for some time entertained respecting these birds.
Ruffs assume such a variety of colours that it is scarcely possible to find two alike; but the great length of the feathers on the neck, from which they take their name, at once distinguishes them from all other birds. This tuft and the feathers of the ruff are frequently of different colours in the same bird, while the ruff itself is of an infinite variety of dies. Latham observes, that " of whatever hue the ruff may be, the breast differs very little, and the transverse markings on the upper parts of its plumage somewhat correspond, the ground tint being mostly brown." The tuft in the male is not a warlike ornament only, but is a sort of defensive armour, which wards off the blows by the length, stiffness, and closeness of the feathers : they bristle in a threatening manner when the bird makes an attack, and their colours form the chief distinction between the individuals.
It is not known with certainty where these birds pass the winter: they leave this country about Michaelmas.
The females begin laying their eggs, four in number, the first or second week in May ; the nest is usually found upon the knoll of a hill in swampy places, surrounded by coarse grass of which it is formed.
Harewood, Harry. A Dictionary of Sports. London: T. Tegg and son, 1835.
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