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 different types of 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 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.
Scientific Differences Between Hawk and Falcon Families
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 called hawks, despite actually being called buzzards elsewhere.
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.
General Differences Between the Hawk and Falcon
While these raptors have some traits and characteristics in common, there are plenty of distinguishing differences between them.
|Hawk (Accipiter)||Falcon (Falco)|
|Size||larger and bulkier|
female often larger
|smaller and streamlined|
sizes usually similar
|Eyebrow||severe looking eyebrow||no eyebrow|
|Wings||broad wingspans with softer feathers||arched wings with softer feathers|
|Hunting||soar and circle, chases prey||fly high or hover, dive bombs|
|Killing||snatches prey and crushes it||attacks the back of the neck with a sharp tooth on the beak|
|Nesting||wide-open areas and tall trees||elevated, hard to reach areas|
|Speed||dives at up to 120mph||dives at up to 200mph|
Species of Hawk and Falcon in the United States
To summarize, there are 3 ‘true’ hawk species in the United States. We have not included birds that are named hawk but are actually in a different family.
Also, there are 7 species of falcon commonly reported. We have not included rare or very old sightings of other Falco species.
|Hawk (Accipiter)||Falcon (Falco)|
|Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)||American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)|
|Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)||Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)|
|Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)||Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis)|
|Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus)|
|Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis)|
|Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)|
|Merlin (Falco columbarius)|
Cooper’s Hawk and Peregrine Falcon
I have chosen a hawk and a falcon species to look at a bit closer. The Cooper’s Hawk and Peregrine Falcon are similar sizes, both widespread and reasonably common. Hopefully some more differences between hawks and falcons will become clearer.
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
The Cooper’s Hawk is medium sized for a hawk with a long tail and broad wings and shoulders. Adults are a slate gray on the back and buff with orange bars on the front. The legs are yellow and the eye is orange. It looks very similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk but is larger.
Juveniles (pictured above) are brown on the back and heavily barred on the front and head.
As you can see from the eBird Range Map above, the Cooper’s Hawk is spread across continental America, into Canada and Central America. It is only absent in desert areas.
Length: 14.6 – 15.3 inches
Wingspan: 24.4 – 35.4 inches
Weight: 7.8 – 14.5 ounces
Length: 16.5 – 17.7 inches
Wingspan: 29.5 – 35.4 inches
Weight: 11.6 – 24.0 ounces
The Cooper’s Hawk predominately hunts and eats smaller birds, usually catching them in the air. It will stake out bird feeders looking for prey.
Although hawks are typically solitary animals, when they 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.
The Cooper’s Hawk is moving into more urban areas where it preys on feral pigeons and other doves.
Traditionally, the Cooper’s Hawk inhabits and hunts in forested areas and is known for dying of a fractured skull after flying at full speed into the trunks of trees.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
The back of the Peregrine Falcon is a deep gray that often looks blue. A white front is barred with black spots. The distinctive feature to aid identification in the field is the dark patches around the eyes. The legs, top of the bill and eye rings are all bright yellow.
The juvenile Peregrine Falcon (photo above) looks very similar to the adult but the tone is browner.
The Range Map above shows how widespread the Peregrine Falcon. In fact, it is seen across the globe.
Length: 14.2 – 19.3 inches
Wingspan: 39.4 – 43.3 inches
Weight: 18.7 – 56.4 ounces
The Peregrine Falcon hunts mostly for birds ranging in size from small songbirds to larger waterbirds. It will also sometimes take small mammals.
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.
Baby falcons can start flying at just 6 weeks old, and begin hunting their own prey not long after. The adults teach the young to hunt by throwing food for them to catch in mid air.
There we have it, there is no doubt that these birds are incredible. Remember, nothing is set in stone. For example, we know that hawks tend to be larger than falcons but the largest Peregrine Falcon is bigger than an average Cooper’s Hawk. While falcons and hawks are both raptors with a lot of similarities, they are also very different from each other. Learning how to recognize them and their differences is the best way to identify them correctly in the field.
We hope you have enjoyed it and come back again to absorb all that information!
Are birds the only animals that falcons and hawks eat?
While the Cooper’s Hawk and Peregrine Falcon eat mainly birds, that is not the case for all other such raptors. The Bat Falcon, for instance, eats bats!
Why isn’t the Red-tailed Hawk a real hawk?
Other birds named hawk but not on our list are members of the Buteo family of buzzards. It is an anomaly that they are named hawks.
Are hawks faster than falcons?
Falcons tend to be lighter and faster. Their wing tips are slender and pointed and they are built for speed. The hawk’s wings are bulkier and the tips more feathered so they are slower. The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal on earth.