Hawk vs Falcon: Their Differences & A Quick Guide In Understanding The Birds Of Prey

group of hawks

Last Updated: April 2, 2021

Identifying various bird species can be arduous, specifically for birdwatching newbies. Different shades of plumages or similarities in behaviors can be confusing even for the experienced birder, sometimes.

Hence...

We came up with this article to help every bird enthusiast conveniently differentiate falcon vs hawk species. Let's explore the diversity and beauty of two of the world's popular birds of prey.

Main Differences Between Hawk vs Falcon

The main differences between hawk vs falcon are:

  • Hawks have rounded, outstretched wings that help them take off quickly and accelerate rapidly, whereas falcons have slender, pointed wings excellent for high-speed stooping.
  • A hawk's back has grayish and brownish plumages, with pale, striped feathers on the underside, whereas female falcons have black-barred wings and bluish-gray for males.
  • Hawks have smooth, pointy heads, whereas falcons have short, round heads.
  • Hawks kill their prey using their claws, whereas falcons use their beaks for killing their game.

Understanding The Biodiversity Of Hawks And Falcons

Maybe you're still wondering, what is the difference between a falcon and a hawk? In what ways are they alike? What should you do so that you will no longer be confused in determining if it's falcon or hawk you saw the next time you see them?

If these are some of your questions, keep reading because this section will explore different characteristics to highlight these two birds' similarities and differences. 

Body Size

Most of the hawk species have females with substantially larger body sizes than males. In some of their species, the female is twice the size of the males.

Some falcons, such as the kestrels and caracaras, are raptors having petite to medium-sized bodies. They closely resemble hawks with their hooked beaks, taloned feet, and keen sight but differ in eggshell colors.

red and black hawk standing

Appearance

All birds belonging to the hawk family have solid beaks perfect for tearing flesh and slit-like nostrils in the upper beak's delicate part, also known as the "sere." Their necks are short but powerful, and they have sharp-curved talons fitted for striking and capturing their prey.

Additionally, I suggest that you start looking at these birds sideways to see how they have significant differences in their heads' shape. It is among the most reliable way of telling the difference between falcon and hawk aside from the other features we covered in this article.

A hawk has a smooth, pointy head, while a falcon's head is short and round.

The falcons also have sharp claws and an extra serration on each side of their beaks, which they use for killing quarry.

Styles Of Flight

Hawks are famous for their gliding flight style, fluttering their wings slowly while soaring in circles in the air. Sometimes they will flail their wings or flap a few beats then glide.

Falcons rapidly and powerfully flap their wings for a short period in the air. Their slim wings can reduce drag in the air and harder to steer in wooded areas. Falcon wings are well suited for hunting in a wide-open country.

Wings And Feathers

When checking for a notable difference between hawk and falcon, one of the things you should observe is their wing shape. Between falcons vs hawks, the latter has wider wings with rounded ends. Some of its species have unique, separated feathers.

Falcons have slim, long, and pointy wings ideal for high-speed stooping and acrobatic flights, but it closes up against their bodies when stooping. Most of them have an extensive base to their wings, which makes them excellent at soaring.

a black and red hawk standing on a wood pile

Migration

The migration pattern is crucial if you're a birder looking for the perfect opportunity for some phenomenal photography to capture the difference between falcon and hawk.

The fall season is when the hawks migrate to the south for food sources, while it's in springtime that they go northbound to their nesting sites. They are inclined to avoid hurricanes and bad weather.

Every birder will find it more convenient to watch out for these raptors during these seasons. It is the most efficient time to witness various hawks and falcons as they journey along popular flyways.

Behavior

Hawks are excellent predators, seeing farther than other birds. They can even spot a mouse on the ground thousands of feet below them due to their excellent hearing and eyesight.

Generally, the young hawks are less active while gaining experience and sharpening their skills as hunters because they save their energies until it's needed. However, unlike their ferocious reputation, hawks can also be quiet and amiable.

On the contrary, falcons are fast-flying birds well-known for their speed. They are vigorous at flying and diving with legendary flight ability, with an impressive speed of more than 100 miles per hour.

Hunting Style

Hawks hunt by stealth, hovering from one perch to another, grazing the ground between trees to prevent their prey from spotting them.

They only break their cover to show themselves at the last moment before the kill.

Unlike falcons attacking their game from high altitudes, the hawks prefer to attack their prey from a hidden perch. A hawk's feet structure also allows it to battle larger prey without endangering itself with a broken bone or injury.

Falcons hunt birds and insects by speed and cunning, striking down other birds in mid-air using their hind claw.

Some people even train pet falcons to hunt and kill games, so it remains one of the oldest sports in human history.

Flying hawk over water

Habitat

It is common to see hawks in various habitats, from woodlands and forests to rural areas. They're either soaring in the sky or perched on a tree during the day.

On the contrary, falcons are birds of open country, and you will seldom find them in woods. Unlike owls, falcons don't like building their nests; they sometimes take over nests or prefer to thrive in desert edges, tundra, moor, and grasslands.

Nest

Hawks build large nests made of moss, bark, twigs, and sticks high in the trees. They typically don't use a different nest, using the same one over the years, leaving it only when they die or have outgrown it.

Falcons show a preference for nesting cavities of flickers and hollows in trees, or they will build nests in bird boxes ten to thirty feet off the ground. The females lay about four to five eggs in either cream or pale pink color with brown blotches.

Feeding Habits

Hawks, like any other raptors, also pluck their prey's feathers before eating. They often take their kill to a plucking spot close to their nests, covering their target after killing to hide it from other predators.

Contrastingly, Falcons fly at considerable heights and then go on a high-speed dive called the "stoop." These birds use their hind claws to give a powerful strike as they smite the prey dead in the air.

Unlike owls which consume their food whole, the hawks shred their food to pieces before eating them. Hawks like eating mice, rabbits, squirrels, and other small mammals, while falcons typically hunt smaller birds such as sparrows and pigeons, and some ground vertebrates.

Birds Of Prey Classification

Birds have different orders, the Falconiformes and the Strigiformes. One group belonging to Falconiformes' order generally hunts during daylight hours, and the other group hunts for prey in the darkness.

These two groups are listed below:

Accipitridae 

The Accipitridae has a wide range of species, including the hawks, Old World vultures, and more.

Falcones

The group Falcones is where the Falcons and caracaras are included.

The Falcon Species

Different species belong to the Falcon family. Some of these birds' common characteristics are long pointed wings, curved bills, and sharp claws. They are brilliant at flying and even have exceptional sight.

Here are several of their species that you can find in the United States:

  • American Kestrel
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Merlin
  • Prairie Falcon
  • Gyrfalcon

The Hawk Species

Hawks came from the Accipitridae subfamily, which includes many different subspecies of large raptors with broad wings used to soar and glide while searching for prey. They mostly have weak flight muscles and naked necks to avoid carcasses' blood from clogging their feathers.

Below are the hawk species you can find in the US:

  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Broad-winged Hawk
  • Swainson’s Hawk
  • Gray Hawk
  • White-tailed Hawk
  • Osprey
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Ferruginous Hawk
  • Harris’s Hawk
  • Zone-tailed Hawk
  • Rough Legged Hawk
  • Common Black Hawk
  • Short-tailed Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you identify a falcon from a hawk?

Falcons and hawks share a close resemblance that it could be tricky to tell them apart at times. Some of the features that can help you distinguish one of these birds from the other are their body sizes, flight styles, speed, hunting techniques, and wing sizes.

Which is faster, hawk or falcon?

Falcons are widely known for their impressive speed in intercepting and capturing distant prey. The peregrine falcons are among the most rapidly flying and most aerial of all the raptors.

Falcon vs hawk, who would win?

Hawks are known for their curved beaks, which contributes to their skillful techniques in killing prey. By contrast, these hawks are no match if it comes down to a falcon's speed. However, when it comes to a fight, there is no way of knowing which of these two birds will win.

Final Thoughts

People often confuse these two birds as they share so many similar characteristics. This confusion is understandable, considering that even experts mistake these two birds sometimes.

That same perplexity is also the reason that sparks their interest in these birds.

However, studying these birds more closely, from their silhouettes and markings to identifying feathers and patterns, helps us better understand how they differ from each other.

Now you can quickly tell one apart from the other and make your bird-watching activities more enjoyable.

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