Ruff Knowledge

Camille Auer

how do we know what we know about birds
or anything
case example: ruff
aka brushane
suokukko calidris pugnax

ruffs are wading birds that nest in northern europe
and migrate to south-western europe, northern africa
and southern asia for the winter
they are the size of a blackbird some more some less

their finnish population is critically endangered

knowing is an activity that happens between entities
where properties of one entity are somehow
processed in the other entity in a conscious way
or maybe not always conscious because knowing
can also happen without knowing that knowing
is happening

knowing about a bird would presumably not be
possible without the bird

we as expressed in language with the pronoun we
most often refers to a group of human beings that
includes the human being using the pronoun we
often the person is actually talking about themself
and could use the pronoun me
but tries to evoke an experience of mutuality by
including other humans in the description of an

i first read about ruffs in a magazine
it described how there are three different
types of “male ruffs” and one type of
“female ruff”

how do we talk about sex and sexuality
in other than human animals that we can’t
communicate with via language

most often some things are taken for granted
things are complex we can attest to that
in queer philosophy of science it is common
practice to remind the reader that sex is
not binary and things are complex

there are species of fungi
that have like 27,000 different sexes that can
reproduce in myriad different combinations
there are fish that can switch sexes
up to 10% of white tailed deer are intersex
birds can have intersex traits that make the left
side male and the right side female
or vice versa in a single bird and
chicken will grow roosterlike secondary sexual characteristics
in some conditions
and so many birds are gay
and this is all true and good
and then the most simple explanation
of what is female and what is male is this:
males have small gonads
females have large gonads
and that doesn’t define any other
also remember that female hyenas
have dicks

but i’m not happy with this definition
i don’t want to define female and male
like this so i will for now put them into
parenthesis or scare quotes or otherwise avoid the question
until i have something to say about it
it feels like essentialism so that’s why

but who am i to question this
which brings us to the part of the equation
that is the person or entity that knows
or claims to know or thinks knowing is
which is me
and since you are reading this
is you
and thus makes us into a we

this is me
when i was about five years old
i was playing at being a bird
i had a bird costume my aunt had made
it was a jumpsuit with strings of cloth for
wings and tail
i tried to figure out how to get the experience of
flying how to get me off the ground
we had a bunk bed and the top bed
had a slatted base
i came up with a plan
i would tie the straps that were the wings and tail
on the base of the top bed while laying in the bottom bed
and hanging there i could get off the ground and it would be
the closest i could get to flying
almost immediately after tying the straps
and lifting my weight i realised that the knots tightened
and i was caught in a trap
for a moment that felt long i considered what to do
i suppose i could just stay there like that
but it didn’t seem realistic in the long run
so i decided to call out to my parents in the other room
my dad was frustrated that i had gotten myself into a predicament
he tried to open the knots but my weight was pulling on them
so it was impossible
(that’s what he thought but now that i reflect upon it
i think if i was the adult in the situation i would have tried harder)
i have to cut the straps he said
i protested
you can’t ruin the costume
but he got scissors and cut me loose
i was free but angry
that he had cut my wings

we negotiate gravity so different to birds

i try to look at their micro movements to feel what they feel

their heads rapidly turning back and forth scanning the environment
for risk and reward
eyes turn towards the direction they will take off to
push with legs wings open push the air backwards
body forwards
keep going until you can safely look around again
hold the air under the wings
pass some of it over one to turn
allow your weight to descend
and grab the earth with your toes
scan the surroundings
get back to eating
flies off the air

i still have a bird guide that i had as a teenager
i have marked the species i have seen back then
but i have no memory of seeing all those species
one of them: the ruff

how does forgetting relate to knowing

here’s how ruffs are generally portrayed

there are three different male morphs
the first one is called Independent
it’s allegedly the original one
they are the biggest
they grow a massive ruff:
a feather collar
and ear tufts
in the spring
they are often dark in colour
and old ones
grow yellow warts on their face

they take up a territory of approximately
one square meter in what is called a lekking ground
they will defend this territory from other independent males

the territories appear to me as fleeting

only existing for a moment
and negotiated again when
another independent rushes
against the one holding the spot

the second one is called Satellite
they are intermediate in size
and also grow a feather collar
and ear tufts in the spring
and warts when they’re old enough
their collars are often white

the diversity within the Independent and Satellite males
is incredible
they all look different
their collars can be black and white, grey, orange-brown
and any mixture of these
and the division into just two groups
seems to be a simplification

the third one is called Faeder
(father in old english)
and they were only discovered in 2006
because they look like the females

in a lot of popular nature media this is a source for jokes

they are called female impostors
and fake females
their behavior is described as sneaking around
and cheating the females into copulation

ruffs are called fighters in spanish
chevalier combatante
fighting knight in french

female ruffs used to be called reeves
yet the species name is ruff
and reeve is no longer in use

let's bring it back

reeves are brown they have a scale like pattern on their wings
and a white underbelly

the birds gather together
sex happens between all the different birds
some of it leads to fertilized eggs

homosexuality is rarely discussed in nature media
when it is mentioned it is sometimes called an accident
but what if the reproductive sexual acts are the accident
that would not happen without all the gay sex

the independent males
take up their territory
next to each other
perhaps in an erotic tension
they hold their territories for a couple of weeks in spring
the rest of the year
they move and forage in flocks
yet it is fighting they are known for

four million years ago a gene sequence was flipped
i don’t know how they know it was four million years ago
but let’s go with that
the flipped gene resulted in
ruffs and reeves where the so called sexes looked similar to each other
which is common in many bird species
these were the faeders of course

we could start calling bird species
where there's no sexual dimorphism
(meaning the “two sexes” look similar)
or polymorphism
(more than two different looking types)
male and female impersonators

when the flipped gene and the original gene sequence
were combined
the extravaganza of the satellites emerged
and the polymorphism that makes
all the satellite and independent ruffs look different

until this year 2022 all popular media stories about ruffs
only talked about the different types in regards to the ruffs
not the reeves
because it’s visually so obvious in them
this march a new study about the morphs in reeves came out
the types exist in them as well
only less visible
the article was about their nesting success
which is the worst for faeder reeves
which makes them my favorite

nature is often seen as a process of reproductive futurism
“the reason of existence is to reproduce”

but more meaninglessness does not make meaning

*The text was previously published in Astra 2/3, 2022. The author wishes to thank Astra's chief editor Elliot Lundegård for their valuable input as an editor and for the ongoing dialogue on all things bird as a friend.