How Do You Identify Hummingbirds?


There are very few birds that people come across on a regular basis that are as captivating as the hummingbird. For millennia, people have taken interest in hummingbirds, from writing legends about them to setting up complex feeding systems in their back gardens to attract more hummingbirds each year.

As part of this, there may come a time when you want to start identifying some of the hummingbirds that are passing through. There are a few different ways that you can start the identification process, but the first step that you should take is to understand how hummingbird identification works.

What Goes Into Hummingbird Identification?

When it comes to identifying animals, of any type, there are several ways to go about doing so. You will always want to start with some of the most identifiable features of the bird and work your way from there. A good example of this is with the ruby-throated hummingbird.

You would first want to search for hummingbirds that have the distinctive red gorget that these birds do. Because it is such a distinguishing feature, it will become quite a bit easier to add identifying features to the process of identification, such as its green feathers or the time of month you saw the bird.

There are three important areas that hummingbirds are defined by. The first is patterns and coloration, while also making sure that you know how to identify a hummingbird’s gender as male and female birds have different colorations. The next is its habitat, which can also include its migration patterns. And finally, you will want to consider the overall size and shape of the hummingbird to the best of your ability.

Identifying a Hummingbird by its Patterns

The coloration and patterns of a hummingbird are going to be the most obvious place to start. One of the reasons why birdwatchers and enthusiasts alike adore hummingbirds is due to their distinct, vivid colors and patterns. As such, most hummingbird species can be identified by this feature alone.

Hummingbirds have four main patches of color on them. They have their backs, their undersides, their gorgets, and their tail feathers. The hummingbird backside extends from the top of its head, by the beak, down to the tail feathers where the color may or may not shift. Their undersides are the direct opposite, reaching from the bottom of their beaks, across the chest and stomach, to meet the tail feathers through the legs of the bird.

The hummingbird gorget is one of the most identifying features of a male hummingbird, often being the most strikingly colorful. The gorget is the area around the throat of the hummingbird, starting underneath the beak and eyes and extending to the bird’s shoulders and slightly down the chest. Female hummingbirds rarely have a distinct gorget, though some may have speckles on their throat.

Identifying a Hummingbird by its Habitat

The next step in identifying a hummingbird is where you found the hummingbird and what time of year it is. The time of year matters heavily, as hummingbirds are a migratory species. Hummingbirds that you saw during the summer are likely going to be halfway across the world when winter arrives.

Hummingbirds typically live throughout the United States and Canada from early spring to late autumn, as this is where the food is. When they are migrating, they typically fly for about 20 miles each day, meaning that it is easy to spot a hummingbird that would not originally be from your location.

Most common hummingbird species will be found in one of a few areas. These include coastal areas, particularly on the Pacific coast, the country of Mexico, and occasionally in the arid, desert-like areas of the southwestern United States. During spring and summer, hummingbirds may be found in more northern areas, but the above areas are where hummingbirds are most commonly found, helping you identify where the hummingbird you see is typically from.

Identifying a Hummingbird by its Size

Last, but not least, is identifying a hummingbird by its size and overall shape. This is often the most difficult part, as hummingbirds generally do not allow people to approach them, handle them, and measure them. However, knowing the general size of a hummingbird and the shape of its tail feathers can help you determine what type of hummingbird you are looking at.

The average size of a hummingbird ranges from 3.25 inches to about 5.5 inches in length. Hummingbirds weigh only a matter of grams, but being able to tell if the hummingbird you are watching is plump or slender can help. Most hummingbirds will weigh between 1.9 grams and 7.6 grams, though they tend to average out around 3 to 4 grams.

You will also want to pay attention to the shape of the tail feathers if you are able to. Some hummingbird species can be identified by distinct markings and shapes. The broad-tailed hummingbird is the most well-known example of this, with their tail feathers considerably wider than most other hummingbirds.

Identifying Whether a Hummingbird Is Male or Female

Your next step is going to be to consider whether the hummingbird you are watching is male or female. While a lot of the differences between sexes of hummingbirds can easily be seen when handling the bird, there’s a very good chance that hummingbirds will not allow you to handle them. As such, you are going to have to make do with simple observation.

There are several key differences between males and females. Following in the pattern of many animals that are sexually dimorphic, the male hummingbird is known for being more colorful and louder, and their feathers are going to be iridescent. Compared to this, female hummingbirds are usually more muted in color and luster in their feathers and quieter, although they are larger.

One thing to note is that in most animals, males are more aggressive than females. This is not the case for hummingbirds. One of the unique aspects of hummingbirds is that both male and female hummingbirds are highly aggressive and territorial birds, so seeing one bird be particularly standoffish does not determine its sex alone.

Common Differences Between Male and Female Hummingbirds

Now that you have a good sense of what features can help you identify whether a hummingbird is male or female, it is important to look into it a little bit more. For example, while females often have more muted colors, there are several species of hummingbird that share similar colors overall.

One of the most identifiable traits of the male hummingbird is the gorget. This is the bright patch of color, often iridescent, on the throat of the hummingbird. Females may have some speckles in this area, depending on the species, but if you see distinctive color on the throat, you can almost certainly determine the hummingbird’s sex.

The Takeaway

There are many, many different ways that people can choose to identify hummingbirds, though the easiest place to start is with their coloration and the location and time of year when you saw the hummingbird.

Both of these help determine the most noticeable aspects of the hummingbird, which are its pattern and its migration patterns. From here, you should have a fairly straightforward experience finding out which hummingbirds frequent your yard so you can start catering to that species’ needs.