Hummingbirds are unique and fascinating, but they are so tiny and quick that their field marks can easily confuse even experienced birders who try to identify them properly.
By learning the parts of a hummingbird, however, you will be better able to watch these tiny birds with an eye toward the necessary field marks for confident identification.
Hummingbird bills are needle-thin for probing deep into flowers to sip nectar, one of these birds' primary food sources. Check how the length compares to the head size, look for color at the base or tip, and examine the bill shape for a wide base or if it is decurved to help with hummingbird identification. Take care not to mistake pollen stuck on the bird's bill for unique coloration, however.
The crown is the top of a bird's head, and on some hummingbird species, it may show iridescent coloration. Check that coloration in different light and shadow conditions to determine the color shades that can help with proper identification.
The chin is hard to see on hummingbirds because of their small size, but it can be an important clue in some species, such as the broad-tailed hummingbird and ruby-throated hummingbird. Look for contrasting colors on the chin and how that color compares to the rest of the throat.
The throat, or gorget, of a hummingbird, is one of its easiest field marks. Many male hummingbirds have brightly colored throats in red, pink, orange, purple, turquoise, or other shades. The colors are created by the feather structure rather than pigments and may change color in different lights. Even females may show streaks or splotching that can be clues to their identity. Other hummingbirds may have malar stripes or other field marks associated with the throat.
The auricular cheek patch on hummingbirds can be a good clue in some species that feature unique head patterns. The brown violet-ear, for example, has a distinct purple patch of auriculars, though the color can vary depending on the light conditions.
When flying, the wings of a hummingbird beat so fast they may be nearly invisible. When the bird is perched, however, the length of the wing compared to the overall body length and tail length can be good field marks. Also, listen for sounds when hummingbirds are flying nearby – some species create a buzzy trill with their wingbeats.
Contrasting colors on a hummingbird's chest can help identify the bird species. Some hummingbirds have sharp differences between the throat and chest, while other species have a blurry boundary or may be plainly colored.
The sides of a bird's body are its flanks, and a hummingbird's flanks may show a color wash that can be useful in distinguishing different species. Comparing the flanks with the chest will also help determine which bird is which.
Hummingbirds have very tiny, delicate feet that are held very close to the body and may look like small, dark spots when the bird is flying. While all hummingbird feet look similar and cannot help distinguish different species by themselves, knowing where a hummingbird's feet can be seen will help you avoid mistaking them for color splotches.
Along with its back, a hummingbird's rump can be a good field mark for seeing the coloration of the upperparts. Some birds have different colors on the rump than on the back, and that contrast can also be a useful identification clue.
When a hummingbird is hovering to feed, observers have a great look at its undertail coverts. While many hummingbirds have plain white undertail coverts, any color wash, spots, or other markings can be excellent field marks for accurate identification.
A hummingbird's tail is one of its most underappreciated field marks. The length of the tail is the first clue to check, as well as whether there are any white or colored tips to the tail feathers. The positioning of the tail can also help identify the bird—is the tail splayed or held closed, or is it being pumped continuously while the bird feeds? When the hummingbird is perched, check the tail for a fork or whether the tip is smoothly rounded, and check to see if individual tail feathers are rounded or pointed.
The Bottom Line
Learning how the parts of a bird can be seen on hummingbirds can help you more easily identify different hummingbird species. The more confident you are with your identifications, the more you will enjoy the unique birds that visit your feeders, flowerbeds, or favorite birding hotspots.