Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Who struggles to identify all those speedy hummingbirds visiting their feeders? (Raises hand.) This long flocking post will help you find the best tricks for separating Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds.
For many in North America, hummingbird migration brings hope for new flying jewels and rare hummingbirds. From the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast, and down to the Gulf of Mexico, two hummingbirds share striking similarities that can create identification problems for even experienced birders. While the males of these two species are easily distinguished, the females and immature birds can seem like a blend of buffy, rufous, and green color that cannot be identified without photos. There are two quick reminders, and then together we will explore the identification of these hummers!
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Now, jump into these identifications by first looking at the expected range of each species.
Rufous Hummingbird Range Map
The Rufous Hummingbird breeds farther north than any other hummingbird species. Their spring migration sends them up the Pacific Coast, and their fall migration sends them down the Rocky Mountain corridor. Almost 60% of the Rufous Hummingbird population breeds in British Columbia. BC for the win.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird Range Map
The Broad-tailed Hummingbird breeds almost exclusively in the southern Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madres of Mexico. In some parts of their southern range, the can be found year-round. Over 40% of the global breeding population of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is found in Colorado! Holy bleep!
Broad-tailed Hummingbird vs Rufous Hummingbird: Adult Male Identification
The adult male versions of the Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds are so distinct, I would hazard a guess that my help is not needed. However, if you want a couple of tips on these identifications, do not scroll ahead to the next section.
First, let me clear up two identification keys that are frequently used, but are incorrect or of little help. First, do not use aggression to identify a hummingbird. Yes, Rufous Hummingbirds frequently are bullies at feeders, but at any given moment, another hummingbird could assert itself at the feeder. Do not trust it. This assumption also leads to the second issue. Just because Rufous Hummingbirds are aggressive, does not mean they are larger than Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. In fact, Broad-tailed hummingbirds average a larger wingspan by almost half-an-inch! So get that misinformation, wrap it up in a bow, and sacrifice it to the porcelain gods to which it belongs. (Because it is crappy. It is a poop joke.)
Those two pieces of misinformation are long gone now, right? Great. Now, here are some helpful tips in distinguishing these two adult males:
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - The tail of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird is mostly black with limited rufous, except the middle feathers which are mostly green with limited black.
Rufous Hummingbird - The tail of the Rufous Hummingbird is mostly rufous with limited black.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - The Broad-tailed Hummingbird has a vest colored in dark emerald green.
Rufous Hummingbird - The Rufous Hummingbird has a vest of bright rufous/orange. It is quite the contrast from the Broad-tailed Hummingbird.
Gorget (throat) color
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - The rosy-red color of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird often has led to confusion from those living in eastern North America. They often mislabel the Broad-tailed as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Rufous Hummingbird - The Rufous Hummingbird has a gorget color of orange to red with a golden cast.
See? Quick and easy. Until...
Broad-tailed Hummingbird vs Rufous Hummingbird: Female and Immature Identification
This. This. THIS identification is what haunts the minds of many backyard bird lovers. Which birds offer the most trouble? Immature and female Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and female Rufous Hummingbirds. Male Rufous Hummingbirds have tails that have little to no green, so they are fairly easy to identify. However, those females can create mass confusion on-par with "Where did we park the car?" Terrifying.
Do not fear! Together, we can smite this terrible identification foe! Below, are five tips focusing on the tail of each hummingbird. Use these to steel yourself against the tide of humming. One quick note, hummingbirds have ten total tail feathers, five on each side of their midline. These feathers are labeled r1 - r5, with r1 being the innermost feather on both sides of the midline, and r5 is the outermost tail feather on each side.
Rufous in outer tail
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - The outer tail feathers of female and immature Broad-tailed Hummingbirds have more black than rufous, and minimal green. If the black is longer than the rufous, it is likely a Broad-tailed.
Rufous Hummingbird - The outer tail feathers of female Rufous Hummingbirds have more rufous than black, and little to no green. If the rufous is longer than the black, you are likely looking at a rufous (unless you are in Allen's territory).
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - Broad-tailed Hummingbirds have green rumps. However, immature Broad-tailed Hummingbirds can have buffy fringes to the feathers on their rump. See the image below for a comparison.
Rufous Hummingbird - Female and immature Rufous Hummingbirds have green and rufous rumps. The green feathers have broad rufous edging to each feather. Do not confuse the buffy edging of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird with the rufous edging of the Rufous Hummingbird. Again, check the image below for a photo comparison.
Feather and pattern shape
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - The white tips of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird are often more rounded or peaked at the top, with the white often streaking up the shaft significantly. Rufous Hummingbirds can also have the white streaking up the feather shaft some, but the top of the white is still more flattened in appearance.
Rufous Hummingbird - The second innermost tail feather (r2) of the Rufous Hummingbird often has a notch or dent, emargination, or both. What does that mean? It means the tip of the feather often has a 'pinched' appearance.
Rufous in the inner tail
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - In Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, the green is far more extensive in the second innermost tail feather (r2).
Rufous Hummingbird - In Rufous Hummingbirds, the rufous is far more extensive in the second innermost tail feather (r2).
Length of r4 to r3
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - The distance between the tip of r4 to r3 is minimal in Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The tip of r4 reaches extensively beyond the top of the white in r3.
Rufous Hummingbird - The distance between the tip of r4 to r3 is greater in the Rufous Hummingbird than the Broad-tailed. The tip of r4 extends to the top of the white of r3 but not much beyond that.
From the underside, we can still use our five tips from above. Note, the Rufous Hummingbird on the right has the white streaking up the shafts of the outer tail feathers, but the border overall is flattened.
** Also, note the undertail coverts of each bird. The Broad-tailed Hummingbird has buffy undertail coverts, and the Rufous Hummingbird has rufous undertail coverts.
With a lot of patience, a few photos, and a deep breath, anyone can identify a hummingbird. If you can get photos, it is always encouraged, as hummingbirds can move so quickly our brains can be tricked into seeing a field mark or trait that was nonexistent. However, if you cannot get a photo, use the tips provided above to separate these two beautiful buzzer birds.
How to Identify Hummingbirds
A field guide is always a smart choice, and we recommend the North American Hummingbirds: An Identification Guide (Amazon) as our top choice. At least until Peterson field guides update the guide written by Sheri Williamson.