In early spring, hummingbird feeders in eastern North America begin to swarm with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the males easily identifiable by their bright crimson throats and shiny green feathers. But eventually the red breeding plumage disappears, and the darting, sipping hummingbirds all start to look like… females? How did that happen? You might think the males have flown the coop, but that’s just not the case. Here’s what really happens to those birds and how you can do some proper Ruby-throated Hummingbird ID in summer.
Where Have the Male Ruby-throats Gone?
Despite the fact that male Ruby-throats are the ultimate dead-beat dad and don’t stick around to help with child-rearing, they are still very much in residence in your garden. The reality is that, by July, those hot-blooded adult males have gone through a summer molt, and they look just like their white-throated female counterparts, as well as their juvenile offspring.
Scientists believe that all adult Ruby-throated Hummingbirds go through this molt in the middle of summer, not just the males. Females replace nesting feathers, but that’s not nearly as evident as the loss of the no-longer-needed scarlet gorgets in the males. Add in the juvenile males who “masquerade” as females until their first winter, and you end up with a bunch of hummingbirds at your feeders that all look the same.
Ruby-throat Identification in Summer
The best time to definitively separate the males from the females is in early spring while the ruby throat feathers are still present and before any nestlings begin to fledge. But if you’re really into gender identifying your Ruby-throated Hummingbird visitors in summer, here are a few key features to look for…
- Size: Generally 15-25% larger than males in adulthood
- Throat: White, perhaps with buffy streaking
- Back: Often a lighter metallic green or bronze-green than the males
- Tail: Fan-shaped and rounded with white tips
- Coloring: Adults are usually darker over-all than females; juveniles are duller and mottled-looking
- Tail: Forked and uniformly dark with no white tips; juvenile males, however, sport the same rounded, white-tipped tail feathers as the females
- Throat: In summer, males of all ages have white throats with more pronounced streaking than females, giving them a “5 o’clock shadow” or scaled appearance; a few red throat feathers may become visible in fall
All is not lost, though. Even if these tips don’t help you ID your summer hummingbird visitors, not to worry. Those red-throated male birds will most assuredly make an appearance again next spring when they will once again be much easier to identify. Males get their flashy ruby feathers shortly before leaving their tropical wintering grounds, ready to fly north, find a mate, and set up house in your backyard again for the growing season.
More about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird
For more fun facts about this amazing little bird, from favorite flowers to nesting habits, check out this post: Let’s Talk About the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
For an excellent book to help you identify all the life stages of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, try one of these:
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird by June Osborne
Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Robert Sargent