It can be very exciting to see a hummingbird hovering around your flowerbeds, until you look a little closer and realize your guest isn’t a hummingbird at all. Many large species of moths can be surprisingly similar to hummingbirds. But, once you learn about these lookalikes, you’ll be able to tell hummingbirds and moths apart with ease.
Moths That Look Like Hummingbirds
Some moths are so similar to hummingbirds in size, appearance, and behavior that they are often called hummingbird moths. Other names include sphinx moths, bee moths, and clearwing moths. There are hundreds of species of these large insects in the Sphingidae family and Hemaris genus. In North America, approximately 125 species of hummingbird moths have been recorded, and each one could be confused with a hummingbird.
These moths sip nectar from the same flowers that attract hummingbirds, and may even visit nectar feeders. They will easily hover as they flit about, and they are as agile in the air as true hummingbirds. The wings of these large moths can even create the same hum-like noises that hummingbird wings produce. Yet when birders look more closely at the moths, it can be easy to tell them apart from birds.
Telling Moths and Hummingbirds Apart
On close inspection, there are many traits that separate hummingbird moths and hummingbirds. If you see one of these creatures but can’t decide whether it is a moth or a bird, look for…
Moths are generally just 1-2 inches in length, whereas hummingbirds are typically 3-4 inches long. Many people might think moths are baby hummingbirds, but young hummingbirds don’t leave the nest and fly on their own until they are nearly full-grown.
Hummingbird lookalike moths have two long, delicate antennae on their heads, pointing forward. Hummingbirds do not have antennae. While some tropical hummingbirds do have plumes or crests, they only have one, and no North American species have that feature.
A moth’s wings are more colorful than a hummingbirds, and may show bold patches or even clear sections. Depending on the species, a hummingbird moth’s wings may also show distinct lobes, but hummingbird wings are more tapered and plain overall.
See also: Where to Hang Your Hummingbird Feeders
Both hummingbird moths and hummingbirds have long, thin structures to drink nectar. For a hummingbird, this is its needle-like bill. A moth, however, has a tongue-like proboscis. The bird’s bill is straight or slightly curved, and is always visible. A moth’s proboscis has a very strong “break” or heavy curve. It is curled up and hard to see when the insect isn’t drinking.
Both moths and hummingbirds have small bodies, but moths have stockier, more barrel-shaped bodies. Hummingbirds are more slender with tapered bodies. Furthermore, moths often show bold color patches or stripes on their backs, while hummingbirds tend to have plain backs that show much more iridescence.
While hummingbird moths and hummingbirds do share some behaviors, there are also differences in their actions that can set them apart. Moths are more likely to be active at twilight or at night. Hummingbirds are generally absent after dark. Moths are also more social than hummingbirds, and may willingly gather in groups, whereas hummingbirds can be more aggressive and territorial. Moths will often keep their wings open even while perched, but hummingbirds fold their wings when they land. By taking a close look at both hummingbirds and moths, it can be easy to tell each one apart by noting a variety of the traits that may them distinct.
Other Hummingbird Lookalikes
In addition to hummingbird moths, there are several other creatures that might at first be mistaken for hummingbirds.
Some warblers and small flycatchers, for example, will hover briefly as they seek out insects. But these birds are still larger than hummingbirds and are unlikely to sip nectar from flowers. They may visit nectar feeders, however, along with verdins and smaller finches, looking for a fast and easy meal.
Large butterflies could also be mistaken for hummingbirds, but their broad, colorful wings set them apart, as well as their more erratic, fluttering flight paths. Even certain plants, such as the bird of paradise flower, can look like hummingbirds at first glance!
Hummingbird lookalikes can be confusing. Once you recognize how moths, butterflies, and other small birds are different from hummingbirds, you can tell them apart and better appreciate all the diversity in your yard.