Learning about birds is a fantastic hobby, and raptors are some of the most interesting birds to look out for. But have you ever wondered if you were looking at a hawk or a falcon? The two birds share some similarities, and it can be easy to mistake one for the other.
If you would love to be able to tell the difference, read on. This article will show you the subtle and obvious differences between a hawk and a falcon. We also make some exciting falcon vs hawk comparisons.
The hawk and falcon have more in common than they have differences. Let's look at some things they have in common, starting with the fact that both hawks and falcons are birds of prey that feed on smaller birds and other animals.
People easily confuse hawks and falcons for one another because of how similar they look. They both have sharp talons, hooked beaks, and similar plumage, all with subtle differences.
Also, neither of them has uniquely distinctive features like crests or sweeping tails like some other birds. Like most birds of prey, female hawks and falcons are bigger than their male counterparts.
Falcons live everywhere in the world; you'll find them in the Arctic tundra, forests, grasslands, and deserts. They'll live anywhere they can find food and are adapted to living in cities.
Hawks are present on every planet except Antarctica. They live in forested areas and build their nest in tall trees. You can find them on mountainous plains, marshes, and woodlands.
They share the same range in the US and are migratory like many birds.
Hawks and falcons generally have greyish plumage with a pale underbelly. Upon closer inspection, you'll find some hawks with brownish feathers and falcons with bluish feathers. Also, hawks tend to have brown cheeks, while falcons have white ones.
People could also think of falcons as hawks because hawk is a term used informally to describe a wide variety of birds of prey. In America, for instance, the peregrine falcon is referred to as the duck hawk.
Hawks are monogamous, they mate for life, but they are solitary animals. You'll only find a hawk mingling closely with other hawks during breeding and migration seasons. Some hawks, like the red-shouldered hawks, do not migrate and so have zero reasons to flock together.
Falcons are monogamous too. Outside the breeding season, you'll find a falcon living alone, as most species are solitary. They also show attachment to their nesting sites and will try to return there after migration.
Read more: Falcon Facts.
Many raptors are called hawks because they share similarities with true hawks. Most eagles and falcons fall into that category.
The hawk belongs to the family Accipitridae. Members of the true hawk species include the Red-tailed hawks, Sharp-shinned hawks, Harris's hawk, and Cooper's hawk.
Falcons belong to the Falconidae family, with over 35 falcon species worldwide. Popular species include the peregrine falcon, saker falcon, prairie falcon, and American Kestrel.
Although size is not an absolute way to tell the difference between them, falcons tend to be medium-sized raptors compared to hawks. The world's largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, can grow up to a beak-to-tail length of 24 inches.
Interestingly, the title of the smallest raptor in the world is jointly held by two falcons; the black-legged falconet and the Bornean falconet.
The ferruginous hawk, which is the largest in North America, measures 20 to 35 inches from beak to tail, while the red-tailed hawk is about 18 to 25 inches.
But in the hawk species, we also have small birds like the sparrowhawk measuring about 7.9 inches, which makes it small compared to a falcon like a gyrfalcon.
There is a marked difference in the wing shape of both birds. When a hawk’s wings are outstretched, you'll notice that it has wide, short, rounded wings. They also have separated feathers that look like fingers at the edge of their wings.
Falcon wings are slender and taper to a sharp point. They create a clean line when stretched out. Falcons have earned the name longwings for their impressive wings.
To compare, the wingspan of a peregrine falcon is up to 43 inches, while that of the slightly larger Cooper’s hawk is 37 inches at most.
If you get the chance to observe falcons and hawks closely, you'll notice a slight difference in how their heads are shaped. A falcon’s head is short and round, while a hawk’s head is pointy.
Falcons and hawks have curved, sharp beaks that they use to tear into their prey. A closer look would reveal that their beak shape is a little different.
The top beak of a falcon has a notch called a tomial tooth on its underside. It looks like a small bump. Hawks have smoothly curved beaks.
Just by looking at the flight patterns of hawks and falcons, you can tell which is which. Hawks glide, flapping their broad wings slowly and gliding gracefully for long periods. Research says that hawks fly in a way that prioritizes safety over speed2.
Falcons beat their slender wings rapidly, swiftly cutting through the air. Their flying style is direct and fast. Falcons also glide but only briefly; they seem to hover a lot more.
The kestrel falcon, in particular, can stay suspended at a spot in the air for more than a few seconds. It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
Regarding flight speed, falcons are faster than all other birds. Their slender wings help them cut sharply through the wind. In fact, a peregrine falcon can fly at a speed of 320 km per hour, making it the fastest bird and fastest animal in the world1.
Hawks are also speedsters, but they come up far behind falcons. Their normal flying speed is 20-40 mph, but they can reach up to 120 mph when diving for prey.
Falcons don't live very long; most of them die within their first year. The average lifespan of peregrine falcons is about six years. However, they can live for up to 15 years in the wild and 25 years in captivity.
Hawks tend to live longer than falcons, both in the wild and in captivity. A red-tailed hawk can live for up to 21 years in the wild and 29 years in captivity. The rough-legged hawks can live up to 18 years in the wild and 24 in captivity.
Some hawks hunt by soaring high in circles, searching for prey. Others will perch stealthily on a tree or some other vantage point and swoop in quickly once a catch is spotted. Hawks kill prey with their sharp talons and use their strong curved beaks to tear the flesh off their prey.
Falcons hunt by diving at the prey from great heights. They strike it with clenched talons and cause death by the impact. That method is called stopping. They also have the added advantage of using their tomial tooth to break their prey's neck and snap their vertebrae.
Falcons primarily eat smaller birds, including ducks, pigeons, shorebirds, and songbirds. They, especially small falcons, can also consume insects, lizards, mice, and even hares.
A hawk is more interested in eating small mammals, although their diet includes fish, reptiles, and insects.
If you chance upon a nest that may belong to a falcon or a hawk, you can easily tell which bird the nest belongs to by its location and build. A hawk’s nesting site is usually built elaborately with twigs, pine needles, bark, and other soft plant matter. Red-tailed hawks construct their nest in tall trees, at least 4 to 21 meters above the ground.
Falcons don't give much thought to constructing comfy homes. They make their homes in tree holes, cliff ledges, river buffs, and abandoned nests of other large birds.
Peregrine falcons have adapted to live on the ledges of bridges and skyscrapers in major cities.
Hawks are territorial and will defend their homes from other raptors and even humans. Owls, in particular, are natural enemies of the red-tailed hawk. Both birds compete for nesting sites so fiercely that they destroy the eggs and kill the young of the other.
The ferruginous hawk is an exception, however. It flees its nest when disturbed.
Among the falcons, only the peregrine falcon is known for its territorial habits. They will dive at and chase anything that comes near their young. But that apparently is only during the breeding season.
Before the mating season, the male and female hawks work together to build a nest. The female hawk lays buff white eggs with red, brown, or purple specks.
Female falcons typically don't build nests to lay eggs. They just create an impression on a flat surface and brood there. They lay pink-brown eggs with deep red blotches.
Let's see some more comparisons.
Birds of prey are characteristically equipped with dagger-sharp talons and strong beaks to defend and hunt. A hawk and a falcon would have an even match in a fight.
However, hawks have the advantage of size, and falcons possess impressive agility.
At the end of the day, the exact species of hawk or falcon in question is what determines which bird would win in a fight. Because there is quite a variation in size across species, bigger hawks stand a higher chance against small falcons.
A falcon’s wings allow it to fly faster but not necessarily more precisely, although it can change direction swiftly. But with their talons, tooth, and speed, some falcons can even snatch up birds of their own size as prey in midair.
Hawks attack stealthily. Although their flying style is graceful, it's not slow. They have fleshy talons that asphyxiate and crush prey.
The two birds also have excellent eyesight and seem evenly matched as hunters. But the hawk wins points for stealth and the falcon for its boldness.
Falconry, that's what it's called when people capture and try to tame hawks, falcons, and other raptors. Sure, falcons and hawks will comfortably take to bird boxes some ten feet above the ground. But should you keep birds of prey as pets?
Truly falcons and hawks tend to have longer lifespans in captivity; it's not living with humans but the absence of predators they have to thank for that. Keeping those birds as pets is challenging; remember, they are wild birds. It might even be illegal in your country due to the endangered population.
A more important reason to desist from taking birds of prey from the wild is that they could lose their natural hunting instincts.
The United States is home to 6 species of falcons and 14 types of hawks.
Although peregrine falcons are the most popular, the American kestrel is the most common falcon in the US. You'll most likely find it perched on utility lines or some other high point watching the ground for prey.
The red-tailed hawk is the most common type of hawk in America. You can find them throughout the United States.
Imagine coming across the fastest bird on earth, the peregrine falcon, and not knowing; it would be rather disappointing, wouldn't it? In comparing falcon vs. hawk, we can see that although both birds share a lot of similarities, there are some differences. But now you know that the falcon's wings are pointy while a hawk’s is rounded. Also, hawks are slow, graceful flyers, but falcons prefer speed.
So the next time you are in the wild, impress your friends and family with your bird expertise!
Tucker, V. A. (1998). Gliding flight: speed and acceleration of ideal falcons during diving and pulling out. Journal of Experimental Biology, 201(4), 403-414.
KleinHeerenbrink, M., France, L. A., Brighton, C. H., & Taylor, G. K. (2022). Optimization of avian perching manoeuvres. Nature, 607(7917), 91–96.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.