Hummingbirds are such unique and amazing birds that, in North America, you are more likely to have trouble telling the difference between different hummingbird species than you are to confuse hummingbirds with other bird species.
What Do Hummingbirds Look Like?
Hummingbirds present in North America are relatively small birds that fly and flit quickly around gardens, supping nectar from flowers and drinking at hummingbird feeders.
But, while all hummingbirds share certain characteristics in common, there can be quite a marked difference in appearance between different hummingbird species that you might encounter.
The male Ruby-throated hummingbird has a throat patch of iridescent ruby red bordered narrowly with velvety black on the upper margin. This vivid color is not visible from all angles, and the patch does not extend onto the crown of the head. The male of this species also has a forked black tail with a faint violet sheen.
The female Ruby-throated hummingbird has a notched tail with outer feathers banded in green, black, and white and a white throat that may be plain or lightly marked with dusky streaks or stipples. Juvenile males resemble adult females, though they typically have somewhat stronger throat markings.
Rufous hummingbird males have an iridescent orange-red throat patch or gorget, rufous faces, flanks and tails, and white breasts. Some males may also have some green on their backs and/or on their crowns.
The females have green, white, and sometimes iridescent orange feathers in the center of the throat, dark tails with white tips, and rufous bases.
Broad-tailed hummingbird males have bright rose red gorgets and white rings around their eyes which are key identifying characteristics. They are big-headed for a hummingbird and have white breasts and green and buff-colored flanks.
Females and immature birds are distinguished by broad white rings around their eyes, though they look similar to other hummingbird females.
A male Anna’s hummingbird is the only North American hummingbird species with a reddish pink crown and gorget. However, these are not always strongly colored and, depending on the light, may sometimes appear a dark or even black hue.
Female and juvenile male Anna’s hummingbirds have a dull green crown, a gray throat with or without red iridescence, a gray chest and belly, and a dark, rounded tail with white tips on the outer feathers.
Adult Black-chinned hummingbirds are metallic green above and white below with green flanks. The adult male has a black face and chin, a glossy purple throat band, and a dark forked tail. The female has a dark rounded tail with white tips and no throat patch.
These are just some of the common hummingbird species that can be encountered in at least some of the US.
Are There Other Birds That Look Like Hummingbirds?
In the contiguous United States, no other birds can really be mistaken for hummingbirds since these birds are so unique in their size, appearance, and modes of flight and movement.
However, if you place hummingbird feeders in your garden in North America, you might encounter a range of other species which may also take advantage of the sweet sugar water that your feeders contain, including:
Hummingbirds split from their sister group of birds – the swifts and tree swifts, around 42 million years ago, and their common ancestor lived around 22 million years ago. This helps account for the lack of similar species and why hummingbirds in the Americas have so many traits that set them apart from other birds we might encounter.
Interestingly, unrelated birds in other parts of the world fill similar ecological niches and are superficially similar. These are held to be examples of convergent evolution.
Which Birds Look Like Hummingbirds?
Sunbirds and spiderhunters make up the family Nectariniidae of passerine birds. They are small, slender passerines from the Old World, usually with downward-curved bills.
Like hummingbirds, sunbirds are strongly sexually dimorphic, with the males usually brilliantly plumaged in iridescent colors. Brightly colored plumage and iridescence in feathers are common features of many sunbird males.
They are found throughout most of Africa to the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, southern China, Indonesia, New Guinea, and northern Australia.
Like hummingbirds, most sunbirds feed largely on nectar but also eat insects and feed these to their young. Some species of sunbirds can hover in the air like hummingbirds as they sup nectar. But they usually perch to feed.
Like hummingbirds, sunbirds can be important pollinators in their range. And, like the flowers often favored by hummingbirds, flowers pollinated by sunbirds are often long, tubular, and red or orange in color.
Honeyeaters belong to the family Meliphagidae, a large and diverse family of small to medium-sized birds. In total, there are 186 species in 55 genera, roughly half of them native to Australia, with many of the remainder occupying New Guinea.
Although honeyeaters look and behave very much like other nectar-feeding passerines around the world (such as the sunbirds) and also share similarities to hummingbirds of the Americas, these similarities are not due to close relation but to convergent evolution.
Unlike the hummingbirds of America, honeyeaters do not have extensive adaptations for hovering flight. But smaller members of the family hover hummingbird-style to collect nectar from time to time.
This group of little passerine birds is believed to belong to the finch family. However, though not related to the hummingbirds seen in the rest of the United States, they resemble them because they have adapted to the environment and feed on nectar from flowers.
Hawaiian honeycreepers are believed to have arrived on the Hawaiian islands between 5.7 and 7.2 million years ago – around the time when the islands of Ni’ihau and Kauai formed.
Since then, the birds have evolved within this unique island environment alongside the native plant species from which they feed. Different characteristics developed, and many different species evolved in adaptation to the conditions on the islands over time.
The ancestral finch species evolved to fill several ecological niches. This led to a wide variety of bill shapes to allow for pollination and nectar feeding from various plants.
Sadly, 20 or so species of Hawaiian honeycreeper have become extinct in the recent past, and many more through human activity in earlier times. Many have been lost due to the introduction of livestock to the islands and the conversion of native habitats to agricultural land.
One particularly hummingbird-like honeycreeper was the Hawai’i akialoa, H. obscurus, which disappeared from Hawaii around 1940.
Truly hummingbird-like species are all now extinct, but one finch-like form that is somewhat like a hummingbird does remain: The I’Iwi, or scarlet honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea.
The Scarlet honeycreeper is a highly recognizable symbol of Hawaii. It is the third most common native land bird on the islands. It is mostly scarlet, with black wings and tail and a long, curved bill that allows it to sup nectar from native flowers.
What Else Looks Like a Hummingbird but Isn’t?
Though you are unlikely to mistake other North American bird species for hummingbirds, there are actually some moths that might be mistaken for hummingbirds on occasion.
One pollinating species in Hawaii with a strong resemblance to hummingbirds is the hummingbird moth. These moths look so much like hummingbirds that they can be mistaken for them at first sight.
These moths, not to be confused with those in the Hemaris genus sometimes seen in North America, are an introduced species in Hawaii – Macroglossum pyrrhosticta. They are found in East Asia.
In Hawaii, the adults are on the wing between April and August and can be seen flitting from flower to flower, feeding on nectar. Their wingspan is typically between 42 and 56 millimeters.
So if you think you see a hummingbird in Hawaii, this is most likely what you have seen.
Elsewhere in the US, members of the Hemaris genus are called hummingbird moths and can sometimes be mistaken for hummingbirds when they are seen in a garden.
Four species of hummingbird moth are found in North America: The most familiar ones are the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). They are both widespread throughout North America, with the former being more abundant in the west and the latter in the east.
Like hummingbirds, these months feed on the nectar from various flowers.