No matter where you are, you’re going to see birds. And among those are birds of prey – larger birds who attack and eat other birds or small mammals.
Hawks and falcons are some of the most common birds of prey, and you can find them almost anywhere. But if you’re new to birdwatching, or simply curious about these species, it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Luckily for you, this article will look at both falcons and hawks, and break down some of the differences between them. Not only that, but you’ll also find some incredible facts about these birds! So let’s get started, and find out more about falcons and hawks.
Hawks and Falcons: A Brief Overview
To help learn the differences between falcons and hawks, we first need to know a little more about them. Both hawks and falcons are raptors, or birds of prey. This means that they are carnivores, who hunt down and eat other animals.
Birds of prey are usually distinguished by their sharp beaks and talons. Other well-known birds of prey include eagles, owls, and kites.
Falcons and hawks can both live pretty much anywhere around the world, apart from Antarctica. They can even be found in heavily-populated areas like cities, where they build their nests on the roofs of tall buildings. However, there are certain terrains and environments that each type of bird prefers.
Hawks and falcons both have plenty of species in their families (Accipitridae and Falconidae respectively), and there is often some confusion regarding which birds belong in their families.
For example, in North America, members of the Buteo genus are also classed as hawks, despite being called buzzards elsewhere. Additionally, some people call any member of the Accipitridae family a hawk, just as long as it isn’t an eagle.
Falcons have a similar issue, although in their case falcons may be given a different name – smaller falcons that hover while hunting are often called kestrels.
What’s The Difference?
While these raptors have some traits and characteristics in common, there are plenty of distinguishing differences between them.
Falcons are usually smaller than hawks and have a more streamlined shape. Their arched wings with stiff feathers are the main inspiration for designs of modern stealth bombers due to their optimization for speed and maneuverability. This suits their hunting style better, as they prefer to hover up high before dive-bombing their prey.
Contrastingly, hawks are larger, with stockier frames and broader wing-spans. Their feathers aren’t as rigid as a falcon’s, and their plumage tends to be plumper on their chest and heads.
This contrasts with a falcon’s streamlined, bullet-like shape (for example, falcons don’t have the plumage or eyebrow ridges that you can find on a hawk).
There are also differences in their hunting methods. Falcons prefer to hunt by flying up high and dive-bombing prey, using their keen eyesight to spot animals far below them. Hawks, meanwhile, tend to soar through the open air looking for prey on the ground, or chasing down other, smaller birds.
In terms of actually attacking and killing prey, hawks and falcons differ here too. Hawks use their claws to attack prey, either snatching up animals like rodents and lizards or snatching smaller birds right out of the air.
Meanwhile, falcons use a sharp ‘tooth’ on their beak to make a kill, typically swooping down on unsuspecting birds at blinding speeds and attacking the back of the neck. Both of these methods are highly effective, making hawks and falcons extremely dangerous.
While both birds are able to live just about anywhere in the world, falcons usually build their nests in elevated, hard-to-reach areas like cliff faces, crags, or (in more densely populated areas) the roofs of skyscrapers. This allows them to watch over their eggs while also searching for prey.
Hawks, on the other hand, prefer wide-open areas like deserts, lakes, and meadows. They will roost in tall trees, and don’t need as much elevation as falcons. This is because they hunt closer to the ground, compared to falcons who need height to stoop (the name for their dive).
Facts About Hawks
Now that you’ve learned the difference between hawks and falcons, let’s take a look at some of the things which make these birds fascinating.
Hawks mate for life. Males perform complex dances and tricks in the air to impress a mate, and will stay together for their 15-20 year lifespan. Not only that, when a hawk lays eggs, both parents will take turns guarding the eggs and hunting for food.
There are over 200 species of hawk worldwide, with the red-tailed hawk being the most common in North America. The largest species of hawk is the upland buzzard, which can grow up to a 5-foot wingspan, while the smallest, with a wingspan measuring in at only 12 inches on average.
Like most birds of prey, hawks hunt using their razor-sharp talons. However, the hawk’s great eyesight and incredible speed let hawks hunt prey on the ground as well as other smaller birds. Hawks have a relatively varied diet, ranging from small mammals and lizards to other, smaller birds such as pigeons.
On top of having better eyesight than humans, hawks (like most other birds) are able to see a wider range of colors too. As hawks hunt during the day, their eyes not only pick up the normal range of visible colors as humans but can also see colors in the ultraviolet range.
Although hawks are typically solitary animals, when hawks migrate they will congregate in massive flocks called a ‘kettle’. These mass movements for migration are beneficial to hawks, as they can more easily find thermals to help them fly, and prevent losing track of their destination.
Facts About Falcons
The peregrine falcon is not only the world’s fastest bird, but it’s also the world’s fastest animal overall. Its dive can reach speeds of up to 300km/h, over three times faster than a cheetah’s top speed.
Peregrine falcons also have a specialized bone in their nostrils that slows down airflow, allowing them to breathe while at these dizzying speeds.
Not only that, but peregrines have also evolved a third eyelid (called a ‘nictitating membrane’), which protects their eyes from the wind. This specialized evolution makes peregrine falcons incredible hunters.
A falcon’s arched and pointed wings are a great shape for diving, and its stiff feathers stay steady in the air, reducing drag. This differs from other birds, including other birds of prey, whose feathers are less rigid. The design of these wings optimizes speed and maneuverability, making diving much easier and more effective.
Falcons also have incredible eyesight. It is estimated that falcons have vision over eight times better than human’s. When hunting, a falcon can spot prey from a kilometer away, and maintain that vision while stooping at high speeds.
Historically, humans have trained falcons for hunting purposes. Their keen eyesight, speed, and effectiveness as hunters made them great for helping track down small game such as rabbits or pheasants. And while this hunting practice is less common nowadays, falconry is still a very popular sport, with shows and competitions displaying the falcon’s skills.
Baby falcons can start flying at just 6 weeks old, and begin hunting their own prey not long after. Typically, falcons will start to hunt for themselves when they are around 2-3 months old.
Hawks and falcons are both amazing birds of prey. Their evolutionary advantages and adaptations have made them deadly hunters, but there is so much more to them that make them stand out.
While there are plenty of differences between them, ranging from their size to their habitats, there is one thing that falcons and hawks have in common: these birds are awesome!