Tough ruffs and sneaky sex

‘Love is between a man and a woman’ – a belief that seems to divide every modern society. But while humans wage wars over sexuality, the animal kingdom goes about its freaky business completely undisturbed. Clownfish flip from fathers to females; flatworms are both at once. Fifty different types of lizard have formed all-woman empires that give birth to their own clones – talk about smashing the patriarchy!

Nature is full of these pioneers of peculiar procreation, but one of the most flamboyant examples comes from the wintry swamps of northern Europe. Say hello to the ruff – a strong contender for ‘World’s Most Overdressed Bird’.

Gee, I wonder how it got its name?
Image from nickpix2012, via Flickr.

Lek it or lump it

During the northern winter, ruffs are sociable and calm. Flocks of up to one million birds shed their ridiculous neck frills and journey south for a tropical holiday on the African plains. Here, they patter around the fields in relative harmony. The second they return home, though, it’s war. Males gather together on breeding grounds called leks. Here, they fight beak and nail to woo the females standing on the sidelines [watch the birds in action here].

That’s a lie – it’s not so simple. Ruffs with dark collars (independent males) are the most common, and compete fiercely with each other to impress their future mates. Ruffs with white collars (satellite males) simply wander between leks, seducing females while black-collared males are occupied elsewhere. These different appearances and behaviours are completely controlled by a single point in the ruffs’ DNA, which has remained unchanged for as long as four million years. This is exceptionally rare in nature, but the details are very complex [read more here and here].

For centuries, naturalists thought this was the full story – a sexual system as black and white as the birds themselves. But in 2006, a savvy pair of Dutch scientists discovered a third type of male hiding in plain sight. How did they escape detection for so long? By masquerading as females, down to the very last feather.

Independent and satellite males together on a lek, looking like they’ve stepped out of a 17th-century castle.
Image by Arjan Haverkamp, via Flickr.

Faeders: the full female illusion

These genderbending males are known as faeders; while the name actually comes from an Old English word for ‘father’, fading into the background is exactly what they do. Females and faeders both sport drab grey outfits year round, dispensing with the gaudy collars. The faeders are slightly larger, and a bit stripier during the breeding season, but the illusion is convincing.

Crossdressing is all well and good, but why bother? As it turns out, the sexual success of the faeders may be dependent on their feminine appearance.

Faeder or female? Either way, it’s pretty cute.
By Derek Keats, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sneaky sex and suspicious sexualities

When females are impressed by the lekking displays of dressed-up males, they crouch down and prepare for the cloacal kiss. In the rare event that the other males don’t notice the eager female, the faeders can race in, do their dirty deed, and scuttle back into the crowd. Faeder males also have huge testes – more sperm is thought to improve their chances of parenting a new generation. Chances for sneaky sex are few and far between, so every attempt is crucial!

Looking just like a female seems to help these faeders gain a footing in the sexual stakes – but it also means they deal with their fair share of same-sex action from overexcited males. Shockingly, keen-eyed observers have noticed that faeders are ‘on top‘ in half of their male-on-male matings; when real females procreate, they always end up on the bottom. Does this mean the collared males recognise the faeders as males? Are they knowingly entering into these homosexual rendezvous? Scandalous!

Beyond the binary

We have lots left to learn about the fascinating lives of ruffs, but these gay, crossdressing birds are just one species of thousands that challenge our sexual traditions. Evolution has painted our natural world with all the colours of the wind. If we open our eyes and our minds, more surprising discoveries are sure to come!


A kaleidoscope of male ruffs suiting up for the breeding season.
Image by Franz Vanderwalle, via Flickr.


Stickybeaking for more tales of sexual fluidity? Check out the links below:

1. A terrifying parasite that eats and replaces crab genitals
2. Split down the middle: when an animal is literally half-male, half-female
3. The fake penises of female hyenas

12 Responses to “Tough ruffs and sneaky sex”

  1. Oakley Germech says:

    Wow, I never replied to this – but I thought I should let you know how much I appreciate the lovely feedback! Thanks a bunch, Jasmine 🙂

  2. Jasmine Rhodes says:

    Oakley, this is such a great post! I always love a story about the more-than-human world that challenges our society’s restrictive and oppressive social views. And written in such a fun and engaging way! Well done 🙂

  3. Oakley Germech says:

    Hey Daniel, so glad you liked it – weird animal sex is definitely a crowd-pleaser! Good to know the links at the end were interesting too – I’ll have to keep doing it in future posts 🙂

  4. Oakley Germech says:

    Hi Will, thanks for the comment! 🙂 I think those garter snakes are hilarious – I’ve watched videos of those mating balls before. I definitely think the gender-bending tactic relies on some level of sexual dimorphism in the population. That said, it’s important to remember that lots of species show a clear sexual dimorphism that just isn’t clear to humans – maybe they have colours only visible in the UV spectrum, or differences that our eyes, ears and noses just aren’t attuned to. What I think is so bizarre about the ruff is how rare the genetic mutation that caused the mating strategies is – the stretch of 125 genes responsible has stayed stuck together for almost 4 million years, even as it inverts and mutates. They also believe that the original mating strategy was most similar to the faeder, and subsequent changes that caused the other two, more showy types of male to evolve!

  5. Daniel Hutchinson says:

    Awesome post Oakley
    I loved the way you explained the ruff’s mating strategies in such a hilarious and informative post. It’s always fun to hear about all the varied reproductive strategies animals employ and the ruff definitely has one of the most interesting (I also really liked the other links at the end).

  6. Will Long says:

    Really interesting read!

    I remember watching a video about male snakes pretending to be females (through pheromones?), much like the faeders you wrote about. They would do this after hibernation to attract other males to them which would warm their bodies up. Cool stuff!

    Do you think the gender-bending tactic relies on limited sexual dimorphism? I can’t imagine it working with many other species.

  7. Oakley Germech says:

    Thanks Ru! So glad you liked it 🙂

  8. Ru says:

    This was amazing!! Really learnt more about birds, and definitely stopped me from stigmatising birds as well!! And love the funny captions after the pictures – seriously worth the read 🙂

  9. Oakley Germech says:

    Thanks Aisyah! Glad you enjoyed it 😎 I have a real problem with my italics and bold font, so I’m glad you called me out on it 🙂

  10. Oakley Germech says:

    Thanks for the kind feedback, Lauren! I reckon some people would be HORRIFIED if they knew just how many unconventional things were going on in the animal kingdom.

  11. Aisyah says:

    This is the funniest post I have ever read on the site and, dare I say, in my entire life.

    Echoing Lauren’s sentiments, people need to be more aware of the fact that what counts as a “natural” romantic/sexual relationship has never been as clear-cut as “male + female”; and it’s writing like yours that helps illuminate just how gay we all are, really.

    Not to nitpick, but I’d reckon that when highlighting terminology, it’s okay to use either bold or italics, but not both 🙂

  12. Lauren Cain says:

    Oakley thank you for this hilarious and informative piece on ruffs. I especially like the crossdressing faeders and their huge balls. The more conservative among us often use animals to justify why male + female is the ‘right’ way to do it, but little do they know that animals are just as diverse as us humans!