(excerpt from Netlines,
the official poop sheet of the Hummer/Bird Study Group)
Lets open up
a whole new can of worms here and talk about Black-chinned
hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri).
The following opinions are based on both field observations
and in-hand study during the winter in the Southeastern
United States. It is not intended as a description of their
appearance or behavior on their breeding territories. This
is another case of kissin cousins and look-alikes in
the hummingbird family. Like the discussion of Rufous/Allens
in earlier issues of Netlines, this one will probably
raise a few hackles and stir up some controversy. Ill
simply preface this discussion by saying that any experienced
observer, with practice, will probably be able to sort-out
Black-chinned from Ruby-throated (Archilochus colubris)
by noting a combination of field marks. Whoa! Dont
jump the gun! A hummer ripping through a patch of flowers
at breakneck speed or simply a fly-by bird
is not the best candidate for a detailed study of field
marks. The same limitations you use on yourself when studying
sparrows or shorebirds are applicable here. As with all
bird species, aberrant plumaged individuals can and do
occur. All of that was another disclaimer, just ahead of
the good stuff.
Adult males of both species are easily separated by the
color of their iridescent gorget. By the way, this iridescent
gorget color is not the product of color pigment in the
feathers, but rather the structure of the feathers themselves.
Adult male Black-chinned will have a black chin and upper
throat, bordered on the bottom of the throat by a bright
iridescent purple band. Their adult male Ruby-throated cousins
will have a solid iridescent ruby-red gorget. Both species
will have all dark tail feathers with no white tips. On
rare occasions, an adult male may have faint traces of
white tips on some of these rectrices. Adult males will
not be part of the following discussion.
Black-chinned and Ruby-throated are both in the same
genus, Archilochus, and bear a striking resemblance
to each other. Your field guides, even the newest ones,
will likely show their size as identical. I beg to differ,
almost all Black-chinned of the same age and sex will appear
larger than their Ruby-throated counterparts. The measurement
of length in hummingbirds is some pretty iffy stuff
anyway. The little suckers can sit all hunkered down with
their necks pulled in or they can stretch it out like a
giraffe. Consider size when you start to evaluate the bird
in question, but let it be only a minor thing.
A general rule-of-thumb
to remember: Black-chinned is a long-winged, long-billed,
short-tailed hummingbird. Ruby-throated
is shorter-winged, shorter-billed and longer-tailed. Again
this is just one more of the field marks to be considered.
Not only is the tail of the Black-chinned short, but they
love to flick or pump it rapidly as they hover at flowers
and feeders. Some Ruby-throated may also flick their tails,
but not like the frenzied pumping of Black-chinned. I have
never observed a Black-chinned for any length of time that
it didnt put on a display of tail-pumping as
it hovered. I dont believe that a long tail can be
pumped as fast and as easily as a short one. This is a
big deal! If the hummer in question is a big time tail-pumper,
you gotta put this on the plus side for Black-chinned.
Read on, you are just becoming suspicious at this stage.
always have long decurved bills. This is one of the first
things that you would probably
notice when viewing Black-chinned. Compared to Ruby-throateds
shorter straighter bill, Black-chinned have a snout like
Black-chinned have long wings with blunt curved tips.
Many times when Black-chinned are perched on a limb or
feeder they will hold their wings slightly drooped. When
this happens, the very blunt and rounded tip of the outermost
primary (wing feather) is quite easy to spot with your
binoculars or spotting scope. Put this one down on your
checklist as a critical field mark. In contrast,
the Ruby-throated will have a somewhat pointed wing tip.
Their outermost primary will have only a very slight curve,
and will appear narrow at the tip (see wing photos). Another
thing to look for when examining the wing shape is the
presence of white tufts. These will look like little cotton
balls on the hummers side that protrude above or
below the folded wings. These are very common in Black-chinned,
much more so than in Ruby-throated. A word of caution,
migrating fat Ruby-throated, in late summer or fall, will
almost always shows these tufts protruding because of their
little pudgy jelly-belly. The femoral tufts are a bonus
in your list of field marks, but again only a minor one.
Both species are described
in bird books as having an emerald-green
back. They do of course, but thats like comparing
the blue sky of Alabama to the blue sky of the Rocky Mountains.
Black-chinned generally have a paler green back with the
color appearing more flat and lacking strong
luster. In addition, their back will often have a slight
bronzy or brassy appearance. In contrast, Ruby-throated
tend to have a more shimmering emerald green back with
much luster even when the feathers are somewhat worn. This
field mark is a biggie, especially if youre
very familiar with the back color of Ruby-throated.
a brownish gray or grayish brown crown with only a few
green feathers showing. On the other hand,
Ruby-throated will be emerald green on top of the head.
Another word of caution: Both species can sometimes have
a plastered down, crusty, dirty brown crown
caused by sugars and pollen from flowers. If you know this
is possible, it then becomes easier to determine which
is which by using your binoculars or scope for a really
close-up look. I also believe that Black-chinned tend to
have a more lower sloping forehead. This, combined with
their longer decurved bill gives them a more slender and
less stocky appearance than Ruby-throated.
Worth noting in the field marks, but not conclusive.
The tail feathers
of both species look alike in the field. Slight differences
in these rectrices can be detected when
the birds are in the hand, but even then these differences
are subtle. To my eye, these tail feathers in Black-chinned
are just a tad more paddle-shaped. In my opinion,
the shape of the tail feathers will be of little value when
viewing in the field.
When Black-chinned is perched and the wings are folded,
the tips of the folded wing will almost always extend beyond
the tip of the tail. Occasionally they will appear to be
the same length. Unless the tail feathers are just emerging
and do not have their full length, the tail of Ruby-throated
will always extend well beyond the folded wing. Force yourself
to concentrate on the tail/wing length comparison. This
is a major field mark to look for in a perching
bird at a feeder or in the field.
The underparts of
a Black-chinned female or immature tend to be very dirty
and dingy grayish white. While some
variations may appear in individual birds, as a rule this
is still pretty dependable. Females and most immature males
will look like they have had soot smudged into the feathers
on their sides and belly, appearing grungy underneath.
In contrast, Ruby-throated are more likely to look whitish
and clean below. Again another caution, the white underparts
of Ruby-throated can become soiled and worn. This is especially
true in adult females in late summer and early fall. As
they incubate eggs and brood their babies they develop
a worn band of feathers across the breast. The abrasion
caused by the hardened rim of the nest can cause extensive
wear. In addition, a hummer nest with two pooping babies
can become pretty soiled before they fledge. YUK!! You
should see how messy! This is neither a major nor minor
field mark, but it is worth noting when evaluating the
Finally we will address
the vocalizations of both. To my tin ear, Black-chinned
will call and scold in a softer
and lower key than Ruby-throated. The sounds made by Black-chinned
will have a softer mew or thew or chew quality.
I believe that Ruby-throated, especially males, express
themselves in a much raspier and somewhat higher pitched
tone. I can almost always identify Black-chinned by its
voice. If you dont have experience with Black-chinned
in the field, this paragraph will be of no value. Just
save this part for later on when you are out west where
the Black-chins roam, then try to concentrate on remembering
the subtle differences for later comparisons with Ruby-throated.
Its a toss up as to what species of hummingbird
is most common in winter after Rufous. Black-chinned is
a strong contender for runner-up. Remember, never make
the identification of Black-chinned based on just one field
mark, unless maybe it is a male bird with purple gorget
color. With caution, you should be able to identify almost
any Black-chinned at your feeder. Dont rush, do it
by the book, one field mark at a time. If after going over
all the above, you still cant say for sure, it isnt
a crime. I see many hummingbirds in the field each year
that I cannot positively identify. I know of very few folks
that approach being hummingbird experts. My friends Nancy
Newfield, Bill Baltosser or William Calder come pretty
close. I should hope to learn only a fraction of what they
Lets recap what
to look for:
- Black-chinned tend
to be slightly larger than Ruby-throated of the same
age and sex.
The size difference
isnt great, but write
down your gut feeling if you know Ruby-throated
- Black-chinned normally
have longer wings and bills and shorter tails.
If the tail is much longer than the folded wing,
tend to have long and pronounced decurved bills.
will normally curve downward along most of its
The bill of Ruby-throated will
be relatively short and straight, and rarely
will it show much tendency
to be downturned.
- Black-chinned tend
to have lighter green backs without a lot of luster.
If the back is shimmering emerald green with a
hint of blue luster, it sounds like Ruby-throated.
have gray to gray-brown crowns with a few scattered
late summer and fall Ruby-throated with sticky, stained
and discolored crowns that show no
green. These discolored crowns will almost always
have a plastered-down appearance.
tend to have a low sloping forehead, accented by
shape of the bill. To me, this gives them a more
slender overall appearance.
in the eye of the beholder. Strictly my own opinion.
Ask someone you trust for their observation.
have long wings with distinctively blunt, rounded
When the bird is perched this is easily seen
with good optics.
The wing tips of Ruby-throated
will be basically pointed and straight at the
- Female and immature
Black-chinned tend to have dirty and drab gray color
on their underparts.
Ruby-throated will be more whitish on the breast
and belly compared to Black-chinned.