Both hawks and falcons are raptors or birds of prey. They are carnivorous which means they only eat meat. All raptors are characterized by their hooked bills and strong, thick talons. Generally, they like to hunt live prey such as rabbits, mice, squirrels, fish, snakes and even other birds. But how do you tell the difference when deciding whether the bird you’re seeing is a hawk vs a falcon?
Let’s look at some of the characteristics of each species.
The Characteristics Of Hawks
Hawks belong to a broad category of raptors. There are, in fact, two classifications in the hawk family – forest hawks (accipiters) and open country hawks (buteos).
Hawks have broad wings which they use to soar high in the sky. They also possess stocky, medium-sized bodies. Hawks also have long tails. There are over 270 species of hawks in the world including:
- Red-tailed hawk
- Bat hawk
- Sharp-shinned hawk
- Red-shouldered hawk
- Northern harrier
- Cooper’s hawk
- Sparrow hawk
Hawks have excellent eyesight and can spot their prey from up to 100 feet away. Surprisingly, hawks are able to distinguish between different colors unlike many other animals. They hunt for their prey during the day.
Hawks are generally found in North and Central America, the West Indies and Jamaica.
The Characteristics Of Falcons
Falcons tend to be smaller in stature than hawks and have slender bodies. Their wings are tapered and have sharply pointed tips. These allow them fly fast and also to dive down to grab their prey. There are around 40 species of falcons including:
- Peregrine falcon
- American kestrel
- Gyrfalcon (largest species of falcon – weighs 2 to 4 ½ pounds and is around 20-25 inches long)
Falcons can be found all over the world and are well known for their speed. Falcons have excellent eyesight and tend to hunt for their prey during the day. Female falcons are generally larger than their male counterparts. Both the male and female falcon will take care of their young.
How You Can Tell The Difference Between Hawks And Falcons?
Generally, mature hawks are white and brown in color while falcons tend to be gray and white but there are some species that are brown and white too. Another subtle difference is that hawks have brown cheeks while falcons have white ones.
Also, in mature birds, the hawk has brown stripes on its belly with a white band at the base. Falcons, on the other hand, have striped bellies all the way down to the base.
The only problem arises when you’re looking at a juvenile falcon which is also likely to be brown and white until it reaches maturity. In this situation, take a closer look at the cheeks of the bird because even juvenile falcons have white cheeks.
The beaks on falcons tend to have an angular bend or notch. This allows them to break their prey’s neck easily. Hawks, on the other hand, have smooth beaks which curve slightly. They tend to use their strong talons to grab and kill their prey.
Look At The Wings When The Bird Is In Flight
In flight, hawks and falcons have distinctly different wing spans. When the hawk’s wings are outstretched, you’ll be able to see what looks like ‘fingers’ at the end of their wings.
Falcons, on the other hand, have completely pointed wings when they’re in full flight. This allows them to change direction very quickly.
Hawks fly much slower than falcons and have a tendency to glide in the sky while searching for prey.
Another distinct difference between hawks and falcons is that hawks also have quite long tails.
Now you know the basic differences between hawks and falcons. Hawks tend to be larger birds than falcons and they fly slower and prefer to glide through the sky. Whereas hawks use their talons to catch and kill their prey, falcons use their powerful beaks to break the neck of their prey.
When trying to identify one from the other, have a look at their cheek color and also the stripes on their bellies. Hawks have brown cheeks while falcon cheeks are white. The striping on the belly goes all the way to the base on falcons whereas hawks have a white band at the base.
One of the easiest way to tell the two species apart is when they’re in full flight and you can see their wingspan. Hawks have ‘fingers’ on the tip of their wings whereas falcon wings are slender and pointed.
Have you been able to successfully differentiate between a hawk and a falcon in the wild. Feel free to share your observations in the comments below.