Birding by ear can be valuable for identifying many bird species, and while many hummingbirds sound very similar and may not have extended songs, it is possible to learn the sounds hummingbirds make to help identify these tiny birds.
Hummingbird Songs and Calls
While few North American hummingbirds have a true song, species that stay year-round in tropical habitats often do have chirpy, detailed songs. Listening to the beats, pitch, duration and different tones of those songs can be useful for identifying the birds properly.
For the hummingbirds that don't regularly sing, the specific sound of their calls can still be distinctive – some are more of a "chirp" with a softer end, while others are more of a "chit" with sharper notes. Note how frantic the calls are and when they are made – some hummingbirds are most vocal when defending a feeding territory, while others may perch and chirp to ward off intruders rather than aggressively chase them. Many hummingbird species also use calls during courtship or even just to show excitement when feeding.
Hummingbird sounds can also give a clue to a bird's age or gender. In many hummingbird species, the more aggressive males are also more vocal, as are juvenile birds that may still be demanding attention from adults. Because juvenile birds can be more difficult to identify visually, the added clues from their sounds can be essential for proper identification.
For some hummingbirds, the most distinct sounds they make are nonvocal. Because these birds have such frantic wing beats, their wings may make clear buzzes or trills that can be used for identification. The broad-tailed hummingbird, for example, has a metallic zinging wing noise in flight, though its hovering is mostly silent.
To identify a hummingbird based on its wing noises, note the pitch and quality of the sound, as well as when the sound may be loudest or most distinct, such as in flight, during a dive or while hovering.
Tips for Birding By Ear With Hummingbirds
Just as the tiny field marks on hummingbirds can be hard to see, the subtle differences between their sounds can also be hard to learn. Learning to listen carefully to distinguish pitch and tone can take a lot of practice, and it is best to practice by listening to the sounds of your backyard hummingbirds first. As you learn those sounds, you will also learn when other hummingbirds are making different sounds and need more of your attention for proper identification.
Once you learn the different sounds hummingbirds make, you will learn new skills for properly identifying these tiny birds.
Photo – Ruby-Throated Hummingbird © Ed Schneider