Broad-Tailed Hummingbird or Ruby-Throated Hummingbird?


The broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) and the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) are two of the most popular and recognizable hummingbird species in North America. Though they occupy overlapping ranges, there are some key differences between these tiny, energetic birds that allow bird enthusiasts to distinguish them.

In this article, we will compare and contrast the broad-tailed and ruby-throated hummingbirds in terms of their physical characteristics, habitat and range, feeding habits, mating and nesting, and conservation status. With a bit of knowledge, even novice birders can learn to identify which dazzling hummingbird is gracing their gardens.

Physical Characteristics

Here is a quick overview of the physical features of each species:

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

  • Medium-sized with a body 3.5-4.3 inches long
  • Males have iridescent reddish-pink throat feathers (gorget)
  • Females and juveniles have white undersides with greenish or grayish spots on throat
  • Tail is wide and rounded (key ID feature)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

  • Very small at 2.8-3.5 inches long
  • Males have brilliant metallic red throat (gorget)
  • Females and juveniles lack any red on throat, with white undersides
  • Tail is slender and forked

The broad-tailed hummingbird is slightly stockier and larger than the ruby-throat. But the key distinction is in the tail – broad and rounded in the broad-tail and slender and forked in the ruby-throat. Females are very difficult to distinguish visually.

Habitat and Range

The broad-tailed hummingbird occupies mountain meadows and pine forests in the western United States, while the ruby-throated hummingbird is found in woods and gardens across eastern North America:

  • Broad-tailed: Breeding range is Rocky Mountains, summer range extends to Pacific Coast. Winters in Mexico.
  • Ruby-throated: Breeds across eastern half of U.S. and southern Canada, winters in Central America. Rare west of the Rockies.

There is some overlap along the Rocky Mountains where vagrant ruby-throats may stray west during migration and broad-tails wander eastward.

Feeding Habits

Both species get most of their nutrition from flower nectar and small insects and spiders:

  • Broad-tailed: Feeds on larkspur, columbine, paintbrush and other mountain wildflowers; also hawks flying insects.
  • Ruby-throated: Seeks out nectar from red tubular flowers like cardinal flower, bee balm, and trumpet vine; eats mosquitoes and gnats while hovering.

A key difference is the ruby-throated hummingbird can reach nectar in deeper flowers like honeysuckle and jewelweed using its specialized bill shape. The broad-tailed has a slightly less tapered bill.

Mating and Nesting

Hummingbirds display some unique nesting and breeding behaviors:

  • Males perform elaborate courtship displays to impress females, including aerial maneuvers and dive displays.
  • The tiny nests, about 1-2 inches wide, are constructed with spider webs and lined with plant down.
  • Most species are solitary nesters, with females caring for the young alone.

Some differences between the species:

  • Broad-tailed: Breeds from May to July at higher elevations. Nest is securely attached to a horizontal branch.
  • Ruby-throated: Breeds between April and June, with two broods per season. Nest is well camouflaged on a small tree branch.

Conservation Status

Neither species is considered globally threatened, but some populations are in decline:

  • Broad-tailed: Rated Least Concern but shrinking mountain habitat is an issue.
  • Ruby-throated: Rated Near Threatened due to habitat loss and pesticides reducing numbers.

Preserving flower-rich meadows and reducing pesticide use can help protect both these treasured hummingbirds. Avoiding disturbance around nests during the breeding season is also important.


Distinguishing the broad-tailed and ruby-throated hummingbirds comes down to location, preferred habitat, tail shape, and gorget color in males. Understanding these and other differences allows birdwatchers to identify which enchanting hummingbird is gracing their feeder or garden. With a range of feeding and nesting adaptations, hummingbirds continue to delight nature lovers across North America.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I attract broad-tailed and ruby-throated hummingbirds to my yard?

Hang nectar feeders with a 1:4 ratio of sugar to water and plant tubular flowers in red, orange, and yellow. Also provide a clean water source like a fountain or mister. Avoid pesticides.

What is the best way to identify broad-tailed vs ruby-throated hummingbirds?

For males, look at the gorget – broad-tailed has reddish-pink throat feathers and ruby-throat has bright metallic red. Females are very difficult, so location and tail shape are the best clues – broad in the West with wide tail, or ruby-throat in the East with a slender, forked tail.

How fast do hummingbird wings beat?

Hummingbirds have incredibly fast wing beats to hover and fly in any direction. The broad-tailed and ruby-throated can beat their wings up to 70 times per second! This allows them to precisely maneuver and hover while feeding.

Do broad-tailed and ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate?

Both species migrate, the broad-tailed to Mexico for the winter and the ruby-throated all the way to Central America. Ruby-throats have incredibly long migrations for such tiny birds!

How much do broad-tailed and ruby-throated hummingbirds eat?

To fuel their hyperactive lifestyles, broad-tailed and ruby-throat hummingbirds have voracious appetites. They drink up to twice their body weight in nectar each day and eat hundreds of insects and spiders. Their feeding needs are proportional to their body size.

What are some cool facts about broad-tailed and ruby-throat hummingbirds?

They are the only birds that can fly backwards! Their wings rotate in a full 180 degrees. Hummingbirds also enter torpor, a hibernation-like state, to conserve energy on cold nights. Their feet are so weak they can barely walk, but they excel at flight.