How to Identify Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are some of the most fascinating birds to observe and attract to your garden. With over 300 species, hummingbirds display an incredible diversity in color, behavior, habitat, and migration. Learning how to identify the hummingbirds that visit your feeders or gardens can be an enjoyable and rewarding hobby. This guide will provide tips on hummingbird identification, including how to recognize different species, notes on appearance, behaviors, range maps, and more.

Look for Distinct Markings and Color Patterns

Many hummingbird species can be identified by their distinct plumage markings, iridescent throat feathers, and color patterns.

Key features to note include:

  • Crown and throat colors – Is the crown (top of head) brightly colored, dull, or the same color as the back? What about the gorget (throat feathers)?
  • Back and belly colors – Is the back brightly colored, dull green, or some mix? How about the belly? Contrasting back and belly can be an indicator.
  • Tail shape and markings – Is the tail rounded, forked, or extensively marked with white?
  • Bill shape – Is the bill short, long, curved, straight? Bill differences help ID some species.
  • Leg color – Most have dark legs, but a few have lighter reddish or orange legs.

Take note of any stripes, spots, or patches of color on the face, throat, belly, or tail. Compare your observations to field guide descriptions and range maps. With practice, you will start recognizing common color patterns.

Watch Flight Behavior and Wingbeats

Observe the hummingbird’s flight style and wingbeats to pick up on subtle differences between species.

Pay attention to:

  • Wingbeat rate – Is the hum fast or slow? Fast is usually over 50 beats/second.
  • Flight style – Direct, erratic, hovers frequently? Different species have distinct flight mannerisms.
  • Wing shape – Broad, pointed, or tapered wings indicate species differences.
  • Tail movements – Some species fan or pump their tails open and shut in flight.

For example, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds beat their wings rapidly over 50 times a second, creating an insect-like buzzing. Whereas Rufous Hummingbirds have slower, deeper wing beats around 40 times per second. Subtle differences, but they can help identification.

Listen for Distinct Sounds

Many hummingbirds make unique vocalizations and sounds with their wings or tails. Learning these sounds helps identification.

Listen for:

  • Chattering and squeaking – Some hummingbirds chatter with distinctive squeaking notes.
  • Tail feather trills – Males of some species trill their tails during display dives.
  • Wing whirs and whistles – The wings may whistle or whirr distinctively in flight.
  • Clicking sounds – A few species use bill-clicking for communication.

For instance, Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds make frequent loud chipping and squeaking sounds. Allen’s and Rufous hummingbirds trill their tails. Green Violets produce wispy wing whistles. Recognizing these sounds helps pinpoint tricky identifications.

Note Differences in Feeding Behavior

Hummingbirds have specialized feeding behaviors and preferences when visiting flowers or feeders. Observing these habits can provide helpful clues.

Look for variations in:

  • Feeding position – Hovering, from perches or by clinging to feeders in unique styles.
  • Aggressiveness – Some species chase others aggressively from feeders.
  • Feeder approach – Top down, bottom up, direct flight or hovering in place?
  • Favorite flower type – Preferred flower shapes give hints to species.
  • Time of day – Different species may prefer morning, midday or evening feeding times.

For example, Rufous Hummingbirds tend to be more aggressive, feeding on top down from perches. Ruby-throats feed more delicately hovering right at the ports. Black-chinned Hummingbirds like to cling to feeder bottoms or sides. Subtle differences, but they can aid identification when combined with other factors.

Use Range Maps as a Guide

Compare when and where you spot a hummingbird to known range maps for the species. The season, habitat, and geographic location can provide good clues to identity.

Consider details like:

  • Geographic range – Is the species common or rare where you live? Use range maps.
  • Habitat preferences – Found in open meadows, forests, backyards? Habitat indicates likely species.
  • Migratory status – Is the species a year-round resident or seasonal migrant in your area?
  • Time of year – Species migrate or appear at certain consistent times. Note the season.

If you spot a glittering purple-red hummingbird in Massachusetts in early May, it matches perfectly with when Ruby-throats pass through that area. Seeing one in Arizona in summer likely indicates a resident Black-chinned. Use range, seasonal timing and habitat together when identifying.

Use Photographs, Recordings and Field Guides

Take photos and videos whenever possible. Capture identifying marks, behaviors, characteristic vocalizations, etc. Compare recordings of sounds to known hummingbird audio. Consult field guides to match descriptions, range maps, plumage details and more to your observations. Let the guides lead you to a species match.

Here are some additional tips for identifying hummingbirds during observation:

  • Focus on males – Males have the brightest plumage and most distinguishing features. Females and juveniles are harder to differentiate.
  • Note size differences – Compare sizes to other hummingbird species. Body or bill proportions can give clues.
  • Watch behavior with feeders, flowers, and other birds – Interactions provide identification hints.
  • Observe wings and tail during perching – Unique markings visible when perched.
  • Pay attention to peak activity times – Species have preferred feeding times.
  • Study guide vocalizations – Listen to recordings to learn each species’ sounds.

With practice, you will learn how to identify the hummingbird species in your region by sight and sound. Careful observation and research into field marks, behavior, range, habitat, and other clues will help you put a name to each unique bird.

Common North American Hummingbird Species

Here is an overview of some of the most widespread and commonly encountered hummingbird species in North America:

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird


  • Males have an iridescent red throat gorget and no markings on the head. Females lack gorget, are pale below with white tips on outer tail feathers.
  • Straight, thin bill, squared tail with white tips, and rapid wingbeats.
  • Wingtips produce a distinct high-pitched trill during flight. Also make a rapid series of chips and squeaks.


  • Found in a variety of habitats from forests to gardens, fields, and meadows.
  • Aggressive around feeders and will chase off other species.

Range: Summer and breeding range across eastern North America. Migrate to Mexico and Central America for winter. Rare on the west coast.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird


  • Males have iridescent reddish-pink throat gorget and crown. Females gray-green above, grey below with small red-purple throat spots.
  • Noticeably large bill, round tail with white tips on outer 3-4 feathers.


  • Hovers while feeding and defending territories with loud squeaky vocalizations.
  • Found year-round in gardens, parks and brushy areas on the Pacific Coast.

Range: Year-round resident along the Pacific Coast and southwest. Rare east of the Rocky Mountains.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird


  • Males are bright rufous-red on the back and belly with an iridescent orange-red throat. Females greener above, rusty washed below.
  • Distinctive when perched – squarish tail with wide black subterminal band.
  • Trill their tails in flight and make a buzzy “chip” call.


  • Found in mountain meadows and pine forests. Favors higher elevations.
  • Feeds aggressively from the top of flowers and feeders.

Range: Summer range up the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountains. Winters along the Gulf Coast and Mexico.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird


  • Males have a thin band of iridescent purple feathers at the base of a darkly-forked tail. Females lack gorget. Both have pale whitish tips on outer tail feathers.
  • Wings produce a buzzy trill in flight. Common call is a fast twittering.


  • Found in desert scrub, woodlands, canyons, and brushy areas, often near water.
  • Hovers daintily when feeding. Unaggressive around feeders.

Range: Common summer resident across western North America. Winters in Mexico.

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird


  • Males have vivid magenta throat feathers, with streaking on the belly and undertail. Females lack gorget.
  • Very small with a short straight bill and pale white tips on outer tail feathers.
  • Wings produce a slow buzzing sound in flight.


  • Found in mountain meadows and pine or fir forests, often high elevations.
  • Feed at flowers close to the ground and lower on trees and shrubs.

Range: Breeds in western mountains. Winters in Mexico. Rare east of the Rockies.

Costa’s Hummingbird

Costa's Hummingbird


  • Males have a distinct purple throat gorget and glittering purple crown. Females smaller with smaller throat spotting.
  • Dark rounded tail with pale tips. Wings hum in flight with a abrupt buzzing sound.


  • Found in dry brushy deserts and scrub habitat. Aggressive around feeders.
  • Makes frequent chip notes and rolling chatter sounds.

Range: Year-round resident in the Sonoran and Mojave desert regions. Rare outside the southwest.

Allen’s Hummingbird

Allen's Hummingbird


  • Males have reddish throat gorgets and bright green backs. Females greener with some red throat spotting.
  • Dark rounded tail with white tips on outer 3-4 feathers. Rapid buzzy wing beats.


  • Found in many habitats from coastal areas to woodland edges and scrub.
  • Males perform display dives with loud tail trills. Aggressive around feeders.

Range: Common year-round along the California Coast. Rare east of the Sierras.

Hummingbird Identification Challenges

Identifying hummingbirds can be tricky, even for experienced birders. Here are some of the main challenges:

Similar plumages – Males and females of some species look very alike. Juveniles lack distinguishing colors. Plumages can also fade and appear dull.

Lighting conditions – The iridescent colors can appear washed out or dark depending on lighting. Direct sun vs shade alters appearances.

Quick movements – Hummingbirds move incredibly fast! Hard to spot key field marks as they zoom by.

Hybrids – In overlapping ranges, hummingbird species may hybridize. Makes ID more confusing.

Rarity – In rare cases an unusual vagrant species may appear outside its normal range and be tough to recognize.

Molting – When molting, hummingbirds can briefly have odd mixes of old and new feathers.

Worn feathers – Older hummingbirds can have frayed and faded plumage by end of season.

Juveniles – Young hummingbirds lack full adult coloring and can be challenging to ID.

The best approach is to be patient, use great optics, look for multiple field marks, study behaviors closely, photograph key features, and use guides to make an ID. Let the bird reveal itself with time and attention.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hummingbird Identification

How can I identify hummingbirds at my feeder?

Carefully observe key field marks like gorget color, tail shape, wingtips, bill proportions, and any stripes or patches. Watch flight styles and wing beats. Note behaviors like feeder approach, aggressiveness, and vocalizations. Check range maps for your area. Photos and videos can help greatly with ID too.

What’s the best way to ID a female hummingbird?

Females are harder to differentiate. Look for subtle variations in bill shape, plumage tints, tail markings, wing features, body size and proportions. Behavior and range provide essential clues. Juveniles resemble adult females but with duller plumage.

Why do hummingbird colors look different in sunlight?

Iridescent hummingbird gorgets and crowns reflect light. Direct sunlight makes the colors brighter and more saturated. Shade washes the colors out. Try to view hummingbirds in both light conditions.

How do I know if a hummingbird is rare for my area?

Consult range maps covering your location. Note the typical migrant and resident species. Anything far outside its normal range likely represents a rare vagrant or possible hybrid. Ask local experts to help confirm unusual sightings.

What’s the best way to identify hummingbirds at a feeder from a distance?

Binoculars or a spotting scope allow you to view key details from a distance. Look for distinguishing field marks on plumage, bill, wings, tail and patterns. Photographing key features also helps narrow down ID.

How can I identify a hummingbird if I only hear it?

Learn the common vocalizations for hummingbirds in your region. Listen for squeaks, chirps, buzzing, whistling and tail trills. Record the sounds to compare against known bird call libraries. Identifying by ear takes practice but is possible.


Identifying hummingbirds requires careful observation skills. Look and listen for distinguishing field marks, plumage features, behaviors, vocalizations, flight styles, range timing, and habitat clues. Photograph key details, study guides, and use range maps to help narrow down species. Record interesting sightings and sounds. With practice, you can master identifying hummingbird species by sight and sound. Paying close attention to these remarkable little birds reveals a beautiful diversity hidden within a flurry of fast-moving wings.