The Difference Between Hawks And Falcons

‍Birdwatching can be a fascinating hobby, especially when you start to develop a sense of the different characteristics between birds.

After all, knowing these facts will allow you to confidently identify what bird you are watching.

Two birds that often get confused are the hawk and the falcon. Whilst they may look similar and appear in overlapping habitats, there are some distinct differences between the two birds of prey.

The key differences are in their size, diet, and hunting habits. Hawks are generally larger and hunt larger prey from a higher altitude. Falcons are faster and hunt smaller prey by quickly swooping to their target.

Hawks vs. Falons Comparison Table

AspectHawksFalcons
TaxonomyBelong to the Accipitridae family and is classified under the Accipiter genus which includes 50 species.Belong to the Falco genus within the Falconidae family, comprising about 40 species.
Physical CharacteristicsHawks have a pointy head and a simple curved beak. Their wings are wide and rounded, ideal for soaring and slower flight. They are mostly larger than falcons with brown to greyish plumage.Falcons have rounded and short heads with a tooth or hook-like end to their beak. They have long, pointed wings designed for speed and precision. They often display a bluish-grey hue with blackish wings.
Hunting StyleHawks rely on their powerful talons to capture and kill prey. They hunt small mammals like rabbits, rats, and mice.Falcons use their sharp, notched beaks to kill their prey. Their common hunting technique, known as ‘on the wing’ refers to their ability to catch prey during flight.
SpeedHawks can dive at speeds of up to 120 mph.Falcons, particularly the peregrine falcon, are famous for their speed, reaching dive speeds of up to 200 mph.
Nesting PatternsHawks prefer constructing their nests high up in trees.Falcons often choose tree hollows or cliff ledges for their nests.
Species DistributionHawks are commonly found in areas across North America, Central America, and the West Indies.Falcons can be found all over the world so in some cases you’ll see Falcons and Hawks occupying the same territory.
Conservation StatusAround 20 Hawk species are endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and the use of pesticides.Around 6 Falcon species are considered endangered. However, conservation efforts have helped some species, such as the Peregrine Falcon, to recover.

A Brief Overview of Taxonomy

When it comes to classifying hawks and falcons, it’s essential to understand their place in the scientific hierarchy. Taxonomy is the branch of science that classifies and names organisms.

  • Falcons belong to the Falco genus, which falls within the Falconidae family. There are about 40 species in Falco genus which includes well-known birds such as the peregrine falcon and the kestre.
  • The term ‘hawk’ can refer to birds from various genera within the Accipitridae family. This includes over 200 species including eagles and kites. True hawks are classified under the Accipiter genus which includes 50 species ranging from the small sparrowhawk to the large northern goshawk.

The reason these birds are in different families and genera is because of their characteristics and evolutionary history. Let’s take a look at the physical differences between these birds.

Distinct Physical Characteristics

Learning the physical differences between hawks and falcons will help you correctly identify the bird you are observing.

Beaks and Head Shape

Falcons have rounded and short heads whilst hawks have a more pointy head.

When it comes to the beak, falcons exhibit a tooth or almost hook-like end to their beak which helps them deliver a killing blow to their prey. Hawks have a simple curved beak as they generally kill their prey by using their sharp talons instead.

Wings and Flight

Falcons have long, pointed wings that are designed for speed and precision. This is in tune with how falcons hunt. They tend to quickly close in on their prey and often take part in high-speed pursuits.

Hawks have wide and rounded wings that are ideal for soaring and slower flight where they can glide in the air and look for prey far below.

Color and Size

Hawks are mostly larger than falcons, though, of course, this can differ from species to species. Hawks are brown to greyish in plumage with a pale underside, whilst falcons often display a bluish-grey hue with blackish wings.

Sexual Dimorphism

When it comes to the size difference between the males and females of each species, both are similar. In hawks and falcons, the females are often larger than the males.

Hunting Style

It’s clear that the different physical characteristics of falcons and hawks lend themselves well to a different hunting style.

Falcons use their sharp, notched beaks to kill their prey. You’ll often see them severing the necks of their prey which typically includes other birds and bats. Their common hunting technique, known as ‘on the wing’ refers to their ability to catch prey during flight.

Hawks rely on their powerful talons to capture and kill prey. They hunt small mammals like rabbits, rats, and mice. From high above, they can spot the movements of their prey and swoop down to catch them.

Speed

Falcons are famous for their speed. For instance, the peregrine falcon holds the record for the fastest bird with dive speeds reaching speeds of up to 200 mph.

Hawks are still exceptionally fast, however. The tailed hawk for example can dive at speeds of up to 120 mph.

Nesting Patterns

Hawks prefer constructing their nests high up in trees to gain a view of their surroundings. On the other hand, falcons often choose tree hollows or cliff ledges for their nests.

Species Distribution

Both hawks and falcons have distinct and overlapping ranges ranges.

Hawks are commonly found in areas across North America, Central America, and the West Indies. Faclons can be found all over the world so in some cases you’ll see Falcons and Hawks occupying the same territory.

Conservation Status

You may be wondering if hawks or falcons are considered threatened. This depends on the species. Around 20 Hawk species are endangered and around 30 Falcon species carry the same status. This is due to habitat loss, hunting, and the use of pesticides.

These status bring about the need for conservation efforts and responsible management of their habitats to ensure their survival. A successful story comes from the Peregrine Falcons whose resurgence was due to the banning of pesticides that was causing a drop in their population.

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