Hummingbirds can be exciting to see, but more than one backyard birder has been disappointed to discover they may not be looking at a bird at all – hummingbird moths are fantastic hummingbird imposters. Knowing what to look for can help you tell the difference between these large insects and the tiniest of birds.
About Hummingbird Moths
The term "hummingbird moth" is a general term 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 can be seen regularly in North America. Also called hawk moths, sphinx moths, clearwing moths and bee-hawk moths, and in the caterpillar stage, they are called hornworms.
Hummingbird moths share a lot of common characteristics with hummingbirds, which often leads to confusion if backyard birders aren't aware that these distinct moths may be nearby. 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. Their body shapes are similar, and hummingbird moths are also agile fliers that can hover or fly sideways or backwards, just like hummingbirds. Birders who know what to look for, however, can easily learn to distinguish between these moths and the birds they mimic.
Moth or Bird?
While hummingbird moths and hummingbirds may seem similar, there are actually many differences to look for that can help distinguish them.
- Size: Hummingbird moths are distinctly smaller than hummingbirds, averaging only 1-2 inches in body length compared to the more common 3-4 inches of most hummingbirds. At first, inexperienced backyard birders may assume that hummingbird moths are baby hummingbirds to account for the smaller size, but baby hummingbirds do not fly.
- Antennae: Hummingbird moths have very long, obvious antennae on the head. While some hummingbirds have crests, no North American species do, and hummingbird plumes do not typically face forward in a distinct pair like moth antennae.
- Wing Colors: Many moths have bold patterns and colors on their wings, while hummingbirds typically do not. How the wings are held is also a clue – moths may have their wings spread even while perched, while hummingbirds fold their wings upon landing.
- Legs: Hummingbird moths have six legs, while a hummingbird's legs and feet are much tinier and inconspicuous, especially in flight. Needless to say, the birds also only have two legs.
- Body Shape: Moths have thicker, barrel-shaped bodies, while hummingbirds have a more tapered, delicate shape, particularly when viewed in profile. The abdomen may be thick, but the head and tail are much more tapered than a moth's.
- Bill Shape: Hummingbird bills are needle-like but generally have a slightly thicker base, and while some hummingbirds have decurved bills, the curve is smooth and the bill itself does not change length in mature birds. Hummingbird moths do not have a bill, but their tongues (more technically, the proboscis) are curled up when the moth is not feeding, and when extended, have a distinct bend or break in the curve.
- Rump Patterns: While some hummingbirds do have different colors on the rump and tails, their color patterns are not as bold as hummingbird moths, many of which have multiple thick bars across the abdomen.
- Flocks: Hummingbirds are more aggressive than moths, and while some flocks may form at feeding areas, it is more common to see hummingbirds alone. Hummingbird moths, however, 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, while hummingbirds are generally warier.
- Habitats: Hummingbirds use widely varied habitats, while hummingbird moths are generally more common in gardens and suburbs and not the more wild locations where hummingbirds can still be found. The exact range and habitat depends on the species, though hummingbird moths are found worldwide and hummingbirds are only in the Western Hemisphere.
- Flower Preference: Both of these creatures sip nectar from a wide range of flowers, but many hummingbird moths prefer pale blooms while richer colors are more likely to attract hummingbirds, depending on what flowers are locally available.
- Activity Time: Hummingbirds are diurnal and are only active during the day, while most hummingbird moths are nocturnal. Some are active during the day, however, and both hummingbirds and hummingbird moths may be feeding during twilight. If a flier is spotted after dark, however, it is almost inevitably a hummingbird moth.
Hummingbirds and hummingbird moths may share many characteristics, but as you become familiar both with the birds and the moths, you'll quickly learn what makes each one distinct.
Photo – Hummingbird Moth © Dwight Sipler