1. The Parts of a Hummingbird:
The bright-colored area on the throat and chin is called a gorget. Female hummingbirds do not have a gorget.
In some species there is also a bright-colored area on the forehead and crown. This is called a helmet.
It is a good idea to look at the tail. See if it has white or rufous spots. Where are they on the tail? How big are they?
Be sure to look at the bill. Some species have unusually long bills and some have relatively short bills. In a few species the bill is bright red.
2. Status and Distribution
You should know basic information about your area. In the eastern half of the United States, there is usually only one species: the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. In the west several species are possible. A state by state list of the hummingbirds to be expected in various regions of the United States and Canada is on our Migration Page.
Rarely, hummingbirds show up in the east in winter. If they do, they seldom are Ruby-Throats. The strongest possibility is Rufous Hummingbird, but others are possible.
In the west, the most common hummingbird is the Black-Chinned, but others can be more common in particular areas. In spring and fall migration, the Rufous Hummingbird may be the most common.
In coastal California, the Anna’s Hummingbird and the Allen’s Hummingbird are common. In desert areas the Costa’s Hummingbird may be regular.
In the Rocky Mountains the common hummingbirds are the Broad-Tailed and the Calliope.
In the Northwest, in western Canada, and in Alaska, the Rufous Hummingbird is common in summer.
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas one might see a Buff-Bellied Hummingbird.
More exotic species occur in the Big Bend area of Texas and in southwestern New Mexico and especially in southeastern Arizona. At our summer place in the Chiricahua Mountains we have seen as many as nine species in a single day–and a few additional species on other days. We have seen 15 species within two miles!
A couple more extremely rare hummers are possible in the Florida keys.
Local Audubon societies and bird clubs can provide you with information about status and distribution in your area.
3. Learn the Males
This is easy. Get a field guide. Also, look at the pictures on this web sites.
4. Learn the Females
This is not easy. Study the field guide carefully. Remember status and distribution. Use information in this list:
- Female Ruby-Throats and Female Black-Chins are, for all practical purposes, not distinguishable in the field. If you want to make an educated guess, remember that female Black-Chins usually have a longer bill and they pump their tails. Both are green (not rufous) at the base of the tail. The black-chinned may be more gray on the crown.
- Certain female hummingbirds have rufous in the tail — especially at the base of the tail. These include Rufous, Allen’s, Broad-Tailed and Lucifer.
- Rufous and Allen’s females are not normally distinguishable in the field. Banders say the tail feathers in Allen’s are narrower and more pointed, but this is virtually impossible to see. Both Rufous and Allen’s have a rufous wash on the flanks. It is unwise to identify an Allen’s Hummingbird away from its breeding grounds in California unless the bird is a male with a full gorget and a green back. (We have seen such a bird during early fall migration in Arizona.)
- Female Calliope Hummingbirds have an apricot-colored wash on their underparts. They have a short, very straight bill and a short green tail with white corners. When perched, the wings should extend beyond the tail. They tend to feed lower on flowering plants than most other hummingbirds. Be cautious in this identification.
- Female Costa’s Hummingbirds are small. They have a medium-length straight bill, and very white underparts. They have a green crown and white cheeks. (Black-chins usually have gray crowns and pale gray cheeks.) Costa’s Hummingbirds often seem a little plump. Their throats may have faint dots. The flanks are green.
- The female Broad-Tailed Hummer is a little larger than the Rufous or Allen’s Hummingbird. She has pale rufous flanks and a small amount of rufous on the tail. Be cautious with this one, too.
- The female Anna’s Hummingbird usually has fine red spots on the throat. Her underparts. are usually dingy gray. Her flanks are green. Her bill is long and straight. In our experience we have noticed that she holds her tail perfectly still while feeding.
- The female Blue-Throated and Magnificent Hummingbirds are quite large. The Blue-Throat has much more extensive white areas on the tail. The Blue-Throat has more of a whisker mark; she also is smoothly gray on the underparts.
- The female Lucifer has a decurved (arched) bill. She has a big whisker mark. Her underparts are buffy. This hummingbird is found only in localized areas near the Mexican border.
- The female Broad-Billed Hummingbird has a red bill. Her underparts are gray. Her flanks are green.
- The female White-Eared is localized near the Mexican border in Arizona. It is similar to the female Broad-Billed Hummingbird, but has a shorter bill, a much bolder eye stripe, and green speckling on the throat.
- Be sure your “hummingbird is not a moth. Check Moths of North America, if your “hummingbird” was small, brown, and striped. It may be a sphinx moth.