When observing large birds of prey circling in the sky, it can be extremely difficult to identify them accurately based solely on their size. Birdwatchers often run the risk of mistaking less-common raptors for the red-tailed hawk, which is the most abundant hawk species in the United States.
However, it would be a missed opportunity if they fail to recognize that they might actually be witnessing the fastest animal on the planet, the peregrine falcon.
Hawks and falcons share similar silhouettes and habitats, leading to frequent confusion between the two. Nevertheless, there are both subtle and more pronounced distinctions that can help differentiate them, such as the shape of their outstretched wings, body size, flying style, and beak structure. By understanding these characteristics, you can distinguish between America’s most commonly encountered raptor, the hawk, and the world’s fastest bird falcon
What are Raptors
Raptors, also known as “birds of prey,” represent a captivating and diverse group of birds that occupy the highest echelons of the avian food chain. The term “raptor” finds its origins in the Latin word “rapio,” which conveys the concept of seizing or taking something forcefully.
While the classification of raptors technically encompasses other carnivorous birds such as storks, gulls, and penguins, ornithologists employ the term in a more specific and refined manner. In this narrower definition, raptors encompass a fascinating assortment of birds distinguished by their unique characteristics and adaptations that equip them to thrive as formidable predators.
These remarkable creatures possess a range of remarkable attributes that set them apart. Some of the defining features of raptors are their powerful and sharp beaks, keen eyesight, remarkable flight capabilities, etc.
Comparison between Hawks and Falcons
Now that we know an introduction to Raptors, Let’s dive into the details of Hawks vs Falcon. Below is a chart that will enable you to understand the general differences between hawks and falcons. After that, we will go into detail about each of these differences in detail so continue reading.
|No. of species||Over 300||Over 60|
|Size comparison||Hawks are generally smaller than falcons||Falcons are known as the fastest birds in level flight|
|Height||25-60 centimeters (9.8-23.6 inches)||20-50 centimeters (7.9-19.7 inches)|
|Weight||500 grams – 2 kilograms||300 grams – 1 kilogram|
|Lifespan||Up to 25 years||About 10-15 years|
|Wingspan||60-150 centimeters (23.6-59.1 inches)||50-120 centimeters (19.7-47.2 inches)|
|Vocalization||High-pitched screeches and calls||Distinctive rapid “kak-kak-kak” sound during flight|
|Common preys||Small mammals, birds, reptiles||Small birds, insects, and bats|
|Activity pattern||Diurnal (active during the day)||Diurnal (active during the day)|
|Nesting preference||Build nests on trees or cliffs||Nest on tall structures or scrape nests on the ground|
|Eggs laid||2-4 eggs per clutch||3-5 eggs per clutch|
|Conservation status||Varies across species, some are of least concern while others are critically endangered||Varies across species, some are of least concern while others are critically endangered|
|Geographic range||Found in various habitats worldwide||Found on all continents except Antarctica|
|Special adaptations||Sharp talons for capturing prey and powerful beaks for tearing flesh||Exceptional speed and maneuverability in flight|
|Hunting behavior||Hawks employ a strategy of soaring and diving to catch their prey||Falcons are known for their high-speed aerial pursuits|
|Migration||Some hawks migrate over long distances while others are sedentary||Some falcons are migratory, traveling long distances in search of food and suitable breeding grounds|
|Notable species||Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk||Peregrine Falcon, American Kestrel, Merlin|
While hawks and falcons may share some similarities in their general appearance, there are distinctive features that set them apart. Close observation reveals unique characteristics that help differentiate these raptors from one another. Let’s explore the differences in their appearance.
What do Hawks look like?
Hawks, as a group of medium-sized raptors, exhibit considerable variation in size and physical characteristics. To better understand their appearance, hawks can be divided into two distinct groups:
These subspecies hawks are known for their compact and agile bodies, designed for maneuvering through dense forests in pursuit of prey. Some key features of Accipiter Hawks include:
- Size: Accipiter hawks are generally smaller in size, with lengths ranging from 30 to 60 centimeters (12 to 24 inches) and wingspans of 60 to 110 centimeters (24 to 43 inches).
- Body Shape: They have short, rounded wings and long tails that help them navigate swiftly through forested areas.
- Facial Features: Accipiter hawks have a distinctive facial appearance characterized by a sharp, hooked beak and piercing eyes.
- Plumage: Their plumage varies in coloration and pattern, often with shades of gray, brown, and white. Some species may exhibit distinctive markings such as bars or streaks on their chest and belly.
Examples of Accipiter Hawks
- Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
- Lifespan: 4-5 years
- Origin: Native to North America
- Size: Length 9-13 inches, wingspan 16-22 inches
During the winter, Sharp-shinned Hawks may be seen in Arizona; they are most often seen in the state’s middle, close to Flagstaff, Tonto National Forest, and Coconino National Forest.
Sharp-shinned hawks have reddish-orange breasts and a blue-gray back. Their tails are covered with black bands.
The size of the females is one-third that of the males. They have tiny heads, short, rounded wings, and long, square-ended tails.
Sharp-shinned Hawks move south after breeding in Canada and certain northern states. These birds might spend the whole year in the Appalachians and Western Mountains.
While they are quite elusive, Sharp-shined Hawks can sometimes be observed flying through wide spaces at the margins of woodlands. They are incredibly swift and can move quickly through deep forests to capture their prey, which is mostly songbirds, as it flies.
Furthermore, Sharp-shined Hawks sometimes may be spotted grabbing small birds near feeders. They often prey on songbirds that are approximately a robin’s size.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk often builds its nests towards the tops of tall fir trees in areas with deep cover. With a circumference of 1-2 feet and a depth of 4-6 inches, the nest is large in size and they lay 3 to 8 speckled white or light blue eggs.
- Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
- Lifespan: 7-12 years
- Origin: Native to North America
- Size: Length 14-20 inches, wingspan 24-35 inches
Cooper’s Hawks are year-round inhabitants of Arizona, and during the winter when they move south from their nesting grounds in the north, it is easier to notice them.
The Cooper’s Hawk is larger, roughly the size of a crow, and has a striking resemblance to the Sharp-shinned Hawk in appearance. Given that they both have the same blue-gray back, red-orange breasts, and black bands on the tail, it may be challenging to tell them apart.
Unlike the Sharp-shinned Hawk, they have a bigger head that extends far beyond the wings.
The majority of the US is still home to Cooper’s Hawks, although some of them move south for the winter all the way to Mexico and Honduras in the north of their range, which includes Canada.
Watch out for them at woodland edges, however, you may also find them at feeders in search of a quick meal.
They nest in big trees, often on top of an old nest of a large bird or cluster of mistletoe, and feed on medium-sized birds and small animals and lay 2 to 6 bluish-white to light blue eggs.
Buteo hawks are larger birds with broad wings, built for soaring and gliding over open habitats. Here are some notable characteristics of Buteo hawks:
- Size: Buteo hawks are generally larger than Accipiter hawks, with lengths ranging from 40 to 70 centimeters (16 to 28 inches) and wingspans of 100 to 150 centimeters (39 to 59 inches).
- Body Shape: They have broad wings and short tails, ideal for soaring and circling in open areas while searching for prey.
- Facial Features: Buteo hawks have a robust beak that is curved but not as sharply hooked as Accipiter hawks. Their eyes are typically large and forward-facing.
- Plumage: Their plumage is commonly characterized by a mix of brown, rufous, and white feathers. Some species may have dark bands or mottled patterns on their wings and tail.
Examples of Buteo Hawks:
- Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
- Lifespan: 10-15 years
- Origin: Native to North America
- Size: Length 18-26 inches, wingspan 45-52 inches
Red-tailed Hawks have a recognizable short, broad red tail, as their name suggests. They have big, rounded wings and are huge. The majority of Red-tailed Hawks have a brown back and a light underside.
Since they circle slowly over vast areas in search of food including small animals, birds, and reptiles, they are also the most easily seen and are often seen from cars on the roads.
Red-tailed Hawks are still year-round residents of the US and Mexico, although they migrate south for the winter from Alaska, Canada, and the northern Great Plains.
They nest high on rock ledges, large trees, and sometimes on buildings and lay 2-3 pale, brown-spotted eggs.
- Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
- Lifespan: 5-7 years
- Origin: Native to North America
- Size: Length 18-22 inches, wingspan 47-56 inches
Long-winged hawks with pointed wingtips, Swainson’s Hawks have short tails. They often have paler bellies, brown or red chests, and a back that is mottled brown or grey.
While flying, you can see the contrast between the white top wing and the black flight feathers on the bottom margins and tips of the wings
Before migrating to South America for the winter in huge flocks numbering in the thousands, Swainson’s Hawks may be seen throughout the summer in open territory in the West and over the Great Plains. They reproduce throughout the West from the Pacific to the Midwest and as far away as British Columbia and Alaska.
Since they travel great distances and are known for putting on magnificent displays with tens of thousands of birds throughout the day, May and September are the ideal months to watch these hawks.
Swainson’s Hawks search for rodents by perching on any high points, such as utility poles or fences, making them easier to notice. They may be seen on the ground in grasslands and fields, searching for insects if there are no high places accessible.
In places where burrowing owls are common, they may also eat them. Nevertheless, they are not picky eaters and will consume everything, including bats, lizards, mice, and rabbits as well as crickets and dragonflies.
What do Falcons look like?
Falcons, belonging to the genus Falco, are widely distributed across all continents except Antarctica. This diverse group encompasses around 40 different species, each with its unique characteristics and adaptations. Let’s explore a few notable falcon species:
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) is known for its exceptional speed and aerial prowess. With a wingspan of around 3 to 4 feet, these falcons have a distinctive dark-colored head, a barred chest, and a pale underside. They are found on every continent except Antarctica, and their diet primarily consists of medium-sized birds such as pigeons, ducks, and songbirds. Peregrine Falcons are known for their impressive hunting technique called the “stoop,” where they dive from great heights to strike their prey in mid-air.
Seychelles Kestrel (Falco araea) is a small falcon species endemic to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Measuring only around 10 inches in length, they have a brownish coloration with white and black markings on their plumage. Due to habitat loss and the introduction of invasive species, the Seychelles Kestrel faced a severe population decline. Conservation efforts have been successful in stabilizing their numbers, but they remain classified as vulnerable. Their diet primarily consists of small reptiles, insects, and occasionally small birds.
Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon species and is known for its impressive size and strength. These birds can reach up to 2 feet in length, and their plumage varies from white to dark gray, with some individuals having a mix of colors. Gyrfalcons inhabit Arctic and subarctic regions, including tundra and mountainous areas. They have a diverse diet and are capable of taking down larger prey such as waterfowl, grouse, and even mammals like hares and squirrels.
Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) is a bird of prey found in grasslands, deserts, and steppes of Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. These falcons have a powerful build, with a wingspan of around 3 to 4 feet. They exhibit a wide range of plumage variations, including pale and dark morphs. Saker Falcons primarily feed on small to medium-sized birds, capturing them in high-speed aerial pursuits. Due to habitat loss, illegal hunting, and pesticide use, Saker Falcons have experienced a significant population decline and are listed as endangered.
Major differences between Hawks and Falcons
Below are some of the major difference between hawks and falcons
Hawks vs Falcons: Size
The size difference between falcons and hawks is one of the prominent distinguishing features between these two birds of prey. Hawks are generally considered larger in size, with females typically being larger than males. They exhibit a wide range of sizes, measuring anywhere from 8 to 30 inches in length. It’s important to note that this size range excludes the smallest hawk species, such as the sparrow-hawk.
Falcons, on the other hand, are often described as petite to medium-sized birds. They have a more compact body structure compared to hawks and measure around 8 to 26 inches in length. While there may be variations in size within different falcon species, they generally tend to be smaller when compared to hawks.
It’s worth mentioning that the size of a bird can be influenced by various factors, including age and specific species. For example, juvenile birds may appear smaller in size compared to their adult counterparts. Additionally, different hawk and falcon species may exhibit variations in size, with some species being larger or smaller than the average size range mentioned.
Hawks vs Falcons: Vocalision
Raptors, despite their reputation as fierce hunters, are generally quiet birds. They rely on their stealth and silent flight to surprise and capture their prey effectively. Vocalization is reserved for specific situations such as danger or communication with mates. During the breeding season, male raptors may also vocalize as part of their courtship behavior. Now let’s explore the distinct vocalizations of hawks and falcons.
Vocalision of Hawks
Hawks are known for their distinctive vocalizations. Adult hawks have a hoarse voice and emit a distinct “keee-eeee-arrr” scream, especially while soaring through the air. During the breeding season, they also produce a shrill chwirk sound to communicate with their partners. These calls typically last for 2 to 3 seconds and serve as an important means of communication within their social and breeding dynamics.
Vocalision of Falcons
Falcons are known for their vocal nature and have a distinct call that sets them apart from other raptors. Their vocalization is characterized by a constant “kak-kak-kak” sound, resembling the ticking of an alarm clock. This repetitive call is often used for communication and territorial defense. Additionally, when falcons are excited or perceive a threat nearby, they can emit a call that combines elements of a whistle and a shriek, further highlighting their alertness and agility in response to potential dangers.
Hawks vs Falcons: Diet
While raptors share some similarities in their diets, a closer examination reveals distinct preferences and feeding habits among hawks and other birds of prey:
Diet of Hawks:
Hawks primarily target birds as a significant portion of their diet. While individual species may have specific preferences, common avian prey for hawks include doves, robins, corvids (such as crows and ravens), chickadees, and other songbirds. These aerial hunters display remarkable agility and precision in pursuing and capturing their feathered targets.
Small mammals play a vital role in the diet of hawks. They frequently hunt and consume rodents like squirrels, voles, chipmunks, and rats, as well as rabbits and shrews. These terrestrial mammals provide a substantial source of nutrition for hawks.
In terms of reptilian prey, hawks typically focus on lizards and turtles. However, certain species, such as the Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, possess specialized hunting techniques and may target venomous snakes as well.
Outside of the breeding season, hawks, particularly those belonging to the subfamily Buteoninae, also include invertebrates in their diet. They exhibit a broad appetite for various insects, ranging from crickets to dragonflies, and readily feed on these small creatures.
These dietary preferences and adaptations allow hawks to effectively exploit a diverse range of food sources, ensuring their survival and success as skilled hunters in different ecosystems.
Diet of Falcons
Falcons primarily rely on a diet consisting mainly of smaller birds, which typically make up 70 to 99 percent of their food intake. These agile raptors target a variety of avian prey, including blackbirds, pigeons, starlings, black jays, ducks, grebes, gulls, and songbirds. In addition to birds, falcons also demonstrate their aerial prowess by hunting and capturing bats. The resemblance between falcons and birds often leads to bats becoming part of their diet as well. Fish also features prominently in the menu of many falcon species.
In certain situations where avian or aquatic prey is scarce, falcons may resort to hunting on the ground, where they prey upon rodents such as mice, rats, squirrels, and gophers. They may also target reptiles, including lizards, as well as amphibians like toads and frogs.
Smaller species of falcons, such as kestrels, exhibit a particular fondness for insects. They actively hunt and consume a variety of insects, including crickets, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, and worms.
The diverse diet of falcons showcases their adaptability and versatility as predators, enabling them to exploit various food sources available in their habitats. Their remarkable aerial skills, specialized beaks, and swift hunting techniques contribute to their success in capturing a wide range of prey.
Hawks vs Falcons: Nesting Preferences
Nesting habits vary among hawks, eagles, and falcons, with each species exhibiting distinct preferences for their eyries or nests.
Nesting Habits of Hawks
Hawks typically construct their nests on the uppermost branches of tall and mature trees. These birds display strong territorial behavior and tend to utilize the same nest throughout their lives, unless the tree becomes too weak to support their weight.
Hawks are known to fiercely defend their nests against intruders, including other raptors and even humans. However, there is an exception to this behavior observed in Ferruginous Hawks, as they may abandon their nests when disturbed by human presence.
The nests of hawks are relatively large, measuring approximately 3 to 4 feet across. Both male and female hawks participate in the nest-building process, gathering sticks, twigs, barks, moss, and other suitable materials to construct a sturdy nest for their offspring.
Nesting Habits of Falcons
Falcons exhibit different nesting habits compared to hawks and eagles. Rather than engaging in traditional nest-building activities, falcons have a unique approach to creating their nesting sites. Their nests can be described more as shallow depressions rather than traditional nests.
Instead of gathering materials like twigs, sticks, and grasses to construct a nest, falcons simply lie down and use their feet to push back the gravel or debris, creating a shallow depression. This depression serves as a suitable spot for them to lay their eggs. The choice of nesting location is typically made by the female falcon and often involves selecting a cliff edge as the preferred site for nesting.
Hawks vs Falcons: Speed
Details: When comparing the speed of different raptors, including hawks and falcons, it becomes apparent that falcons have a significant advantage in terms of speed.
Speed of Hawks
Even though falcons are faster than hawks, they are still pretty fast. Among the hawks, the Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are considered the fastest. These magnificent birds can reach impressive speeds of up to 190 km/h during flight. Despite not being the largest or most lethal among raptors, their speed sets them apart within the hawk family.
Speed of Falcons
Falcons, known for their remarkable agility and speed, outshine both hawks and eagles in terms of velocity. While eagles may hold the title for being the fastest among the eagles, falcons surpass them in speed. The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) takes the crown as the fastest falcon and, in fact, the fastest bird on Earth. These incredible creatures can achieve astonishing diving speeds of up to 389 km/h, making them not only the swiftest avian species but also the fastest animals on the planet. They even outpace Cheetahs, the fastest land animals, in their lightning-fast dives. The exceptional speed of falcons makes them a remarkable sight to behold in the skies.
Hawks vs Falcons: Color
When comparing falcons and hawks in terms of color, it’s important to observe the details of their plumage, wings, and undersides to distinguish between the two. While both birds can exhibit similar colors, paying attention to specific patterns can help in identification.
Hawks generally have a range of greyish and brownish feathers, with their undersides often displaying a pale, striped appearance. Their plumage tends to feature a combination of earthy tones. On the other hand, falcons typically have a bluish-grey coloration throughout their plumage. This bluish hue sets them apart from hawks.
In addition to overall color differences, there are specific characteristics that can vary based on the species. For example, red-tailed hawks are known for having a distinct brown belly band with white underneath, along with brown cheeks. This feature is unique to this hawk species and aids in their identification. Peregrine falcons, on the other hand, exhibit a continuous stripe pattern on their plumage and have white cheeks behind their malar stripes, which are distinctive markings for this falcon species.
Hawks vs Falcons: Wings
Distinguishing between falcons and hawks can be accomplished by examining the distinct characteristics of their wings. A quick observation of their wing structures reveals noticeable differences. Hawks possess short, wide, and rounded wings, which provide them with agility and maneuverability during flight. On the other hand, falcons have long, slender, and pointed wings that enable them to achieve high speeds and swift aerial movements.
Final Thoughts on Hawks vs Falcons
While many birds of prey share similar physical characteristics, distinguishing between hawks, eagles, and falcons can be challenging without a closer examination. Vultures and owls stand out from the rest due to their distinct appearances, but the former group requires a more detailed analysis. If you struggle with identifying these birds, the detailed discussion provided in this article will undoubtedly assist you in understanding their unique differences. By delving into the specifics of their features, behaviors, and habitats, you’ll gain valuable insights that will enhance your ability to recognize and appreciate these magnificent creatures of the sky.