Many hummingbirds are difficult to identify, especially when the males' throat colors are very similar such as with broad-tailed hummingbirds and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Even these tiny birds, however, have enough clues for all birders to be confident with their identifications. Knowing exactly which marks and characteristics to look for takes practice, but since watching hummingbirds is never boring, that practice can yield great results.
When one of these colorful hummingbirds comes calling, observing the bird carefully can reveal small markings that can help positively identify the species. When identifying broad-tailed and ruby-throated hummingbirds, watch for these traits:
While all hummingbirds are small, there is a distinct size difference between these two species. Broad-tailed hummingbirds are typically 4-4.25 inches in length, while ruby-throated hummingbirds are smaller and only measure 3.5-3.75 inches long. The overall impression of the bird as a "large" or "small" hummingbird can help separate these two species, or it is possible to judge the bird's size by nearby known objects, such as the size of a hummingbird feeder or the flower blooms the birds visit.
The males' brilliant gorget is prominent on both species, but the color varies. Seen in good, bright light, the broad-tailed hummingbird has a rosy-red or pinkish gorget. The ruby-throated hummingbird's throat, on the other hand, is more of a classic red shade or may show subtle orange tones. On females, the broad-tailed hummingbird has a streaked throat, while the female ruby-throated hummingbird's throat is much plainer and any streaks would be very faint.
While tiny and hard to see, the chins of these birds can be an obvious field mark. The broad-tailed hummingbird has a white chin with a few flecks or spots right at the base of the bill, while the ruby-throated hummingbird has a solidly black chin under the black bill.
Both of these birds have dark eyes, but the broad-tailed hummingbird has a thin white line through the eye that separates the upperparts and gorget, and the female has a faint eye ring. The ruby-throated hummingbird has a darker face without a line, though there is a small white patch behind the eye. These marks can be very challenging to distinguish, however, depending on the view quality, the distance to the bird, and the bird's posture.
The female broad-tailed hummingbird has obvious buff, rusty, or rufous coloring on the flanks while the female ruby-throated hummingbird's flanks are plain white. Both males have green or green-gray flanks.
The tail can be a good field mark on these birds while they are perched. Broad-tailed hummingbirds have a longer, more rounded tail with rufous showing on the edge. Ruby-throated hummingbirds lack the rufous color on their shorter tails and the males have a distinctly forked tail rather than rounded.
While vagrant birds can occur in both species, the overall range is an easy identity clue. The broad-tailed hummingbird is found in the western mountains of the United States and south to Central America, and only rarely ventures further east. The ruby-throated hummingbird, on the other hand, is the only hummingbird to regularly breed in the eastern United States, though it also winters in Central America. The typical breeding ranges of these birds do not overlap, but lost birds and vagrant sightings can happen during migration.
The chirping voices of these hummingbirds can be hard to distinguish, but the zinging metallic trill of the broad-tailed hummingbird's flight is a good clue for its identity. The ruby-throated hummingbird has primarily silent flight.
Field Identification Tips
Despite knowing the subtle differences between these two hummingbird species, it can still be hard to distinguish them in the field. Try to watch the birds in good, bright sunlight to accurately see markings and colors, and watch them closely to check markings in different postures and positions.
Putting hummingbird feeders close to windows can yield great views for extended observations of both perched and hovering birds, and planting flowers to attract hummingbirds will keep these birds returning for further study.
Birders who like to photograph birds should use cameras with fast shutter speeds to capture hummingbirds in flight, and the photos can be useful tools for easier identification.
In the end, however, even the most experienced birders may not always be able to positively identify each species. Most important is just to simply enjoy the company of these flying jewels while you practice learning how to identify each one.
|Trait||Broad-Tailed Hummingbird||Ruby-Throated Hummingbird|
|Throat||Males: Rosy pink-red
|Eyes||Thin white eye line||No eye line|
|Flanks||Females buff or rufous||Females white|
|Tail||Long, rounded, rufous edging||Short, dark, males' forked|
|Sounds||Buzzy wing trill||Silent flight|