Hummingbirds can be exciting to see, but sometimes you might not be looking at a bird at all. Hummingbird moths are fantastic imposters that can look strikingly similar to the popular birds. So knowing what to look for can help you tell the difference between the large insects and tiny birds.
About Hummingbird Moths
The term "hummingbird moth" is applied to many medium to large moths in the Sphingidae family and Hemaris genus of moths. There are more than 1,200 species of these moths worldwide, and roughly 125 of them are in North America. These insects are also called hawk moths, sphinx moths, clearwing moths, bee moths, and bee-hawk moths. And, in the caterpillar stage, they are called hornworms.
Hummingbird moths share many common characteristics with hummingbirds. Both of these creatures are effective pollinators of many of the same flowers, and hummingbird moths also sip nectar from many of the same blooms hummingbirds prefer. The moths sometimes even visit nectar feeders meant for hummingbirds.
Moreover, their body shapes are similar. And hummingbird moths are also agile fliers that can hover, fly sideways, and fly backward just like hummingbirds. These moths can have brightly colored bodies similar to the birds. Plus, their wings make a blur in the air just like flying hummingbirds, even creating a humming noise.
The many similarities between hummingbirds and hummingbird moths are a case of convergent evolution. Both the birds and the insects developed these characteristics independently through eons of evolution, and they both fill similar ecological niches. However, birders who know what to look for can easily learn to distinguish between these moths and the birds they mimic.
Although hummingbird moths and hummingbirds seem quite similar, there are actually many differences to look for to tell them apart.
Hummingbird moths are distinctly smaller than hummingbirds, averaging only 1 to 2 inches in body length compared to the more common 3 to 4 inches of most hummingbirds. At first, inexperienced birders might assume that hummingbird moths are baby hummingbirds. However, baby hummingbirds cannot fly and do not leave their nests until they are nearly adult size.
Hummingbird moths have very long, obvious antennae on their head, and those antennae can be thicker at the end than at the base. While some hummingbirds have crests, or tufts of feathers on their heads, no North American species do. And hummingbird plumes don't typically face forward in a distinct pair like moth antennae. Plus, a moth will have two antennae while a crested hummingbird will have just one central feather plume.
Many moths have bold patterns and colors on their wings, such as stripes and spots, while hummingbirds typically have plain wings. Moths can even have transparent sections to their wings, which hummingbirds will never have. Moths also sometimes have their wings spread even while perched while hummingbirds fold their wings when they land.
Hummingbird moths have six legs that often dangle as they fly and feed. A hummingbird's two legs are much tinier and inconspicuous, especially in flight when they are tucked tightly to the bird's body for better aerodynamics.
Moths have thick, barrel-shaped bodies while hummingbirds have a more tapered, delicate shape, particularly when viewed in profile. The bird's abdomen can be thick, but its head and tail are much more tapered than a moth's. Moths can also have a furry look to their body while hummingbirds are more sleek and smooth.
Hummingbird bills are slim and needle-like, but they generally have a slightly thicker base. While some hummingbirds have downward-curved bills, the curve is smooth, and the bill itself doesn't change length in mature birds. Hummingbird moths don't have a bill, and their tongues are curled up when the moth is not feeding. When extended, the tongues can have a distinct curve or curl.
While some hummingbirds do have different colors on the rump and tail, their color patterns are not as bold as hummingbird moths. And they can be very difficult to see. Many insects, including hummingbird moths, have multiple thick bars or obvious wide patches across the abdomen and rump.
Tail Shape and Action
Hummingbird tails come in many shapes, from simple blunt tails to long streaming tails. On the other hand, hummingbird moths typically only have short, blunt tails that can have a furry or fuzzy appearance. Birds can hold their tails still or fan or pump them while hovering and feeding. Insects nearly always open their tails to a short fan but without any active pumping motions.
Hummingbirds are more aggressive than moths. While flocks of the birds might form at feeding areas, it is more common to see hummingbirds alone. However, hummingbird moths are more likely to travel together and show no aggression toward other moths. Similarly, hummingbird moths are much less likely to fly away if approached by people while hummingbirds are generally warier and will leave quickly.
Hummingbirds use widely varied habitats, depending on the needs of each species. Hummingbird moths are generally more common in gardens and suburbs and not in the wilder, less-developed locations where hummingbirds can still be found. The exact range and habitat depend on the species, though hummingbird moths are found worldwide and hummingbirds are only in the Western Hemisphere. However, for both the moths and birds, tropical regions and lush habitats are home to many more species.
Hummingbirds are diurnal, meaning they're active during the day and sleep at night. Most hummingbird moths are nocturnal, though some are active during the day. Both hummingbirds and hummingbird moths often feed during twilight. But, if one is spotted after dark, it is almost always a hummingbird moth.
Both of these creatures sip nectar from a wide range of flowers. Many hummingbird moths prefer pale blooms. But richer, brighter colors are more likely to attract hummingbirds, depending on which flowers are locally available.