Birding by ear can be valuable for identifying many bird species, but it can be a special challenge to identify the sounds hummingbirds make. Many hummingbirds sound very similar and may not have extended songs, but it is possible to learn their sounds to help identify these tiny birds even without a great view.
Hummingbird Songs and Calls
While few North American hummingbirds have a true, elaborate song, species that stay year-round in tropical habitats often do have chirpy, detailed songs. Listening to the beats, sequence, pitch, duration and different tones of those songs can be useful for identifying different hummingbirds properly. Sharp-eared birders should note the speed of the songs and how frequently they are repeated as well for additional identification clues. With practice, it is possible to identify unique hummingbirds even if they can't be seen.
For hummingbirds that don't regularly sing, the specific sound of their calls can still be distinctive. Some hummingbird sounds are more of a "chirp" with a softer or gentler end, while others are more of a "chit" with sharper, harsher final notes. Some calls may have a buzzing, trilling or warbling quality, all of which can help careful listeners distinguish between different hummingbirds.
Also, note how frantic the calls are and when they are made – timing can be important for identification. Some hummingbirds, for example, are most vocal when defending a feeding territory, while others may perch and chirp to ward off intruders rather than aggressively chase them. Many hummingbird species also use calls during courtship or even just to show excitement when feeding or investigating new objects, such as a colorful gazing ball in the garden or even an interested birder.
Hummingbird sounds can also give a clue to a bird's age or gender. In many hummingbird species, the more aggressive males are also more vocal, as are juvenile birds that may still be demanding attention from adults or begging for a meal. Because juvenile birds can be more difficult to identify visually, the added clues from their sounds can be essential for proper identification.
Wing and Tail Sounds
For some hummingbirds, the most distinct sounds they make are nonvocal. Because these birds have such frantic wing beats, their wings may make clear buzzes, zips, hums or trills that can be used for identification. The broad-tailed hummingbird, for example, has a metallic zinging wing noise in fast or diving flight, though its hovering is mostly silent.
To identify a hummingbird based on its wing noises, note the pitch and quality of the sound, as well as when the sound may be loudest or most distinct, such as in general flight, during a sharp dive or while hovering. Also note if the sound changes as the bird's behavior changes, such as a tone or volume change when the bird may change direction or type of flight.
Tips for Birding By Ear With Hummingbirds
Just as the tiny field marks on hummingbirds can be hard to see, the subtle differences between their sounds can also be hard to learn. To do your best birding by ear with hummingbirds...
- Practice first with common backyard hummingbirds. By learning the sounds of hummers you can positively identify and becoming more familiar with their noises, you will be able to recognize the unusual sounds of other hummingbirds more quickly.
- Listen to different recordings of hummingbird sounds, especially hummingbirds that sound similar and share similar ranges. Compare and contrast the overall songs and sounds to learn to tell the difference between them, using different recordings for a thorough comparison.
- Work on identifying all different birds by ear. This will help you distinguish other high-pitched bird sounds that aren't made by hummingbirds so there is no confusion about other chittering, chirping or buzzing noises.
- Learn common insect sounds for your area. Many beetles, crickets and other insects also have high-pitched buzzes, rattles or chittering noises that can sound similar to hummingbird sounds.
It takes great practice and patience to differentiate between the subtle sounds of hummingbirds. As you learn the different sounds hummingbirds make, however, you will not only more easily identify these birds, but you will learn new skills for making all your birding by ear easier.