In breeding plumage, adult male ruffs have grey to brown upperparts and tail streaked with black bars. The mantle and scapulars vary between black, brown, chestnut, ochre, and white. On the underparts, the upperbreast is dark while the lower belly, underwing, and undertail are white.

The head and nape are grey-brown with darker streaks on the crown, and the throat is white with orange streaking. They have head tufts and ruffs which are highly variable in colour including buff, chestnut, dark purple, black, and white often with bars and flecks, and facial warts which can be grey, yellow, orange, or rust-coloured. The bill is brown or orange, the eyes are dark brown, and the legs and feet are yellowy-green.

When moulting male ruffs have black blotches on the breast and the head is white.

Out of breeding season, they lose the ornamental plumage and have pale grey-brown upperparts, a buff tinge to the breast, and the lower face is white. The bill is dark and the legs and feet are duller.

Female ruffs are similar to males in non-breeding plumage but are much smaller. They are heavily scaled on the breast, neck and head, and the feathers on the upperparts, breast sides, and flanks have black centres. The bill is black, and the legs and feet are orange, green, or grey.

Juveniles have dark upperparts with buff fringes on the feathers. The breast, belly, and foreneck are rufous, the throat is paler, and the face is buff.

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