Hawk vs Falcon – What’s the difference?

Both hawks and falcons are called raptors. Both have strong, sharp talons and hooked beaks built for tearing.

Of approximately 64 falcon species worldwide, seven occur regularly in North America. On the other hand, about 235 hawk species are found in the world, with 24 of them occurring in North America.

One Order, Two Families

Falcons in North America belong to two subfamilies:

  • Caracaras
  • True falcons.

Crested Caracaras are the only representatives of the caracara subfamily on the continent.With their bulkier body and rounded wingtips, they look more like a hawk than do the true falcons.

Hawks in North America fall into seven categories:

  • Buteos
  • Buteo-like hawks
  • Accipiters
  • Harriers
  • Kites
  • Eagles,
  • Ospreys.

Northern Harriers are the only representatives of their kind in North America. Ospreys are unique, with only one species in the world.

Despite their differences, hawks and falcons are closely related. Although related, with both belonging to the order Falconiformes, hawks and falcons are in different families.

The seven North American hawk genera are Accipitridae. The five true falcon genera and Crested Caracaras are Falconidae.

The Latinate names in parentheses following the common name of birds in most field guides include only the genus and species.

Thus, Rough-legged Hawks, in the order Falconiformes and family Accipitridae hold the genus/species Latinate title of Buteo lagopus, Aplomado Falcons are dubbed Falco femoralis.

How Falcons and Hawks Hunt and Feed

North American falcons and hawks tend to be opportunists when it comes to food. They’ll both eat vertebrates and invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects.

How Falcons and Hawks Hunt and Feed

For the most part, hawks use their talons to kill their prey. The true falcons rely on a specialized beak structure, dubbed “tooth and notch.” They use the structure to bite through and break their prey’s neck.

Of the falcons, only the Crested Caracara depends on carrion for its primary diet. It finds its food by flying low over desert or savanna. Aplomado Falcons hunt birds and insects in their habitat of yucca and grasses, often from perches.

At times, they’ll hunt in pairs. The male will keep a bird inside the branches of a tree while the female plunges in for the attack. When the bird tries to escape, the male takes it.

American Kestrels will also hunt from a perch. They’ll sometimes hover over their prey, dropping to capture insects, lizards, birds and mammals.

Prairie Falcons and Gyrfalcons grab birds and small mammals or rodents. They catch them by surprise with their lightning-fast approach. When it’s hot and birds and animals are inactive, they feed on lizards and insects.

Masterful hunters, Peregrine Falcons will prey on much larger birds, such as geese and herons, attacking them in midair. Soaring high above, they’ll fold their wings and “stoop” reaching speeds of well over 100 miles per hour.

Striking their victims a stunning blow, the falcons then circle back and grab their prey in midair. Peregrine Falcons also feed on dragonflies and, in the Grand Canyon, on bats. Like hawks, falcons eat what’s available.

For their part, hawks eat everything falcons do. They’ll also eat fish and, usually, not insects. Bald Eagles will gather in large numbers where fish are abundant, and Ospreys dive feet-first to catch and carry away their next meal.

American Kestrels have been known to eat crayfish when they summer in Florida. But crayfish aren’t fish.

All four North American true falcons will eat insects, but most hawks prefer vertebrates, such as small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds.

Hook-billed Kites and Snail Kites feed on snails. Mississippi Kites, Swallow-tailed Kites, and Swainson’s Hawks eat insects, but they’re the exceptions.

Crested Caracaras are an interesting outlier among falcons in their feeding habits. Although they prefer carrion, they also steal food from other birds and catch their own.

They’ll take animals such as turtles and snakes, as well as fish. They’re early risers, checking out the roadkill to beat the vultures to the prize.

The early scavenger gets the carcass. Toward evening, they’ll walk around, looking for small prey. When they’re breeding, Crested Caracaras will pull strips of flesh from a carcass, put them in a pile and carry them back to their nest.

How Hawks and Falcons Nest and Breed

Among the falcons, Crested Caracaras are again the outlier when it comes to nesting. Like North American hawks, they build their own nests out of sticks.

The true falcons don’t build nests. They move into other birds’ old nests or just find a ledge or hole in a cliffside. More and more often, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons are using city buildings and bridges as nesting sites.

Hawks make their home out of sticks and vegetation. They usually locate the nest in a bush or tree or on a cliff. Sometimes they’ll build it on the ground. Commonly, they’ll reuse a nest.

Hawk Nesting

Hawks’ breeding age varies widely, from nine months for Snail Kites to several years for eagles. Most species are monogamous, frequently for life.

They lay one to nine eggs, usually whitish with some dark markings. Incubation, mostly by females, takes from 25 days to more than two months.

The young arrive downy and with eyes open when they hatch or quickly thereafter. Fledging takes from 22 days to more than six months.

While raising young, females protect the nest while males find food. Both adults do the hunting when the young approach the end of their nestling stage. The adults continue to provide food after the young fledge.

Like hawks, falcons are usually territorial and tend to be solitary nesters. Although most species are monogamous for years, some change mates seasonally.

They breed when they’re one to three years old, laying one to seven pale eggs with prominent red-brown spots. Incubation requires from 26 to 46 days.

Both adults will participate, but the females might predominate with males providing food. The downy and helpless chicks open their eyes after a few days.

Males continue to bring food while females care for the nestlings. The young fledge in 25 to 56 days. Until the young master flying, both adults care for them.

Crested Caracaras breed early, with birds in Florida laying two or three eggs as soon as January or February. The hatchlings arrive quickly for birds of this species’ size but won’t fledge until as much as a week later than other large falcons.

They also stay around long after they fledge–up to several months. Other falcon species leave after a few weeks.

How Hawks and Falcons Migrate

Both hawks and falcons migrate during the day. This habit makes life a little safer for the night-migrating birds they prey on.

The migration doesn’t always mean a long haul of thousands of miles. Swainson’s Hawks travel as much as five thousand miles from Canada to Argentina twice a year.

Some Zone-tailed Hawks winter in southern Mexico and spend the summer in northern Mexico and the southwest U.S. Prairie Falcons stay in their western U.S. and Mexican breeding grounds, except for occasional forays east.

Some North American hawk species, such as Swallow-tailed Kites and Broad-winged Hawks, gather in large flocks to migrate.

In Florida, thousands of Swallow-tailed Kites assemble each fall before migrating to South America. Most falcons, on the other hand, are solitary migrators.

They only move with large numbers of other birds when they’re funneled by topographic features.

Unlike falcons, hawks don’t like to migrate over water large bodies of water. They depend on thermals for soaring, and thermals don’t develop as well over water.

To reduce the distance over water, they will gather on points of land. From there, they might try to gain enough altitude to soar over the water. They might also simply wait for conditions to improve.

Variation Among Hawks and Falcons

North American falcons show much less variation within species than North American hawks. Hawks often vary considerably between adults and juveniles and male and female adults. Variation also occurs between male individuals and female individuals.

Often, male hawks are smaller than females, which is unusual among birds. A number of reasons for this reversed sexual size dimorphism, as it’s called, have been advanced.

However, scientists have not been able to come up with an answer. North American falcon males and females vary little in size.

More conspicuous is variation in plumage. Among falcons and hawks, adult males and females often look alike. Merlins and American Kestrels show some differences between males and females.

However, adult Crested Caracaras, Aplomado Falcons, and Prairie Falcons have identical plumage. Many hawks also show identical plumage in adult males and females, including Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles.

Variation is much more apparent between young and adult hawks. For the most part, juvenile falcons look like their parents. First-year juvenile and adult Crested Caracaras and Aplomado Falcons show the clearest difference in plumage.

Even then, the contrast is not overwhelming. Accipiters, buteos, buteo-like hawks, eagles, and some kites show striking differences between juveniles and adults.

For example, Gray Hawks, overall gray as adults, are brown-winged and white-fronted with brown spots as juveniles. Eagles take up to three years and go through several phases before attaining adult plumage.

To make matters even more confusing, some buteos as well as Gyrfalcons, show plumage polymorphism. The affected birds hatch as dark and light forms in the same brood.

This phenomenon occurs in species that prefer open countries, such as Swainson’s Hawks. The reason for plumage polymorphism remains unclear.

Where to Find Hawks and Falcons

As a rule, North American falcons prefer wide-open spaces. Depending on the species, their favorite habitats include everything from tundra to desert.

For some, even golf courses will do. As the exception that proves the rule, Merlins will nest in forests as well as tundra. Peregrine Falcons and Merlins are moving to the city, where they find tall buildings good substitutes for cliffs and a plentiful food supply.

Merlins, American Kestrels, and Peregrine Falcons range throughout much of the continent. Aplomado Falcons, Crested Caracaras, and Prairie Falcons are more restricted.

Aplomado Falcons are found along the east and south-west coast of Mexico. They are being reintroduced in southern Texas. Crested Caracaras are seen year-round in central and south-central Texas as well as coastal Louisiana, Florida, and much of Mexico.

Prairie Falcons occur in western North America from southern Canada to central Mexico. Gyrfalcons occur rarely south of Alaska and Canada’s far north. They’ve been seen across Canada and the northern U.S. and as far south as southern Kansas.

North American hawks fill niches in a wide range of habitats. They can be found in deep forests, open deserts, and prairies. Accipiters, such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, and Northern Goshawks, will pursue smaller birds through trees and thick brush.

Hook-billed Kites prefer to crawl like parrots through vegetation in search of tree snails. Swainson’s Hawks like grasslands where they can hunt on foot and in flight.

White-tailed Hawks favor coastal savannas. Golden Eagles soar in the mountains.

Hawks occupy North American ranges as large as the continent (except the arctic). Their range also can be as small as central Florida (Snail Kite).

Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks are making more and more appearances in cities and suburbs. Apparently, rodents, such as squirrels, and birds that use backyard feeders make good food sources.

More Alike than Different

Despite their many differences in appearance and behavior, hawks and falcons also have many similarities. They’re both adept hunters and prefer many of the same foods, such as other birds and small mammals.

In appearance, some hawks can be mistaken for falcons and falcons for hawks. For example, Northern Harriers sometimes appear to have the swept-back wings of Prairie Falcons. Gyrfalcons can look like Northern Goshawks.

From nine-inch American Kestrels to 31-inch Bald Eagles, falcons and hawks vary widely.

In size, plumage variation, and behavior, the order Falconiformes offers a rich array.

These hunters do more to impress with their skill and grace than their colorful appearance. As birds of prey, they truly rule the skies throughout North America and the world.

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