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Hawk vs. Falcon: Spotting Differences Between Birds of Prey

Falcon in the air with its wings and tail feathers fully spread out
Peregrine falcons have long, pointy wings and a sharp tooth at the end of their beak. mallardg500 / Getty Images

You see a large bird soaring through the sky at top speed — but what was it? Your friend says it's a peregrine falcon but her partner says it's a red-tailed hawk. Can you resolve the great hawk vs. falcon debate?

Distinguishing between these birds of prey can be tricky. Both hawks and falcons tend to favor open hunting grounds with high perches, and they're both big, fast, impressive hunters. But there are a few key differences.

What Is a Hawk?

A hawk is a bird of prey in the Accipitridae family, which includes buzzards, eagles, harriers and kites. Most hawks are part of the genera Accipiter or Buteo, but some buzzards, harriers and kites — and even some falcons — are called hawks, which can make things confusing.

Bird Hawks

Bird hawks, also known as "true" hawks, are birds in the genus Accipiter, including Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus). There are about 50 species of bird hawks, so named because they eat other birds. They also eat small mammals.

Bird hawks have rounded wings and long tails, which makes them easy to distinguish from falcons, which have pointed wings.

Bird hawks are the largest member of the Accipitridae family. They can be as large as the northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), with a 2-foot-long (60-centimeter-long) body, and as as small as a sparrowhawk (Accipiter minullus), which has a body length of 7.9 inches (20 centimeters).

Buzzard Hawks

Buzzard hawks, also known as buteos, belong to the genus Buteo. They include the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), the ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus).

When you think "hawk," the red-tailed hawk might be what comes to mind. The red-tailed hawk is the most prevalent hawk species in North America.

How Do Hawks Hunt?

Hawks have excellent eyesight, which helps them spot their prey from a distance.

Red-tailed hawks tend to "'Hover-hunt' by flapping in place over potential prey, and by swooping down to grab a meal with their sharp talons," Scott Barnes, All Things Birds program director and assistant director of eco-travel for New Jersey Audubon, told HowStuffWorks.

"Or," Barnes continues, "they 'perch hunt,' which is exactly like it sounds — sitting on a perch (sometimes a telephone pole) and watching below for prey. Once an item is spotted, the hawk drops off its perch and tries to grab a meal."

Where Do Hawks Live?

You can find hawks on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. Hawks prefer open spaces with a few high perches, like cliff ledges or tall trees.

What Is a Falcon?

A falcon is a bird of prey in the Falconidae family. There are almost 60 species of falcons, the most famous of which is probably the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the fastest animal in the world (at least in the air).

Falcon wings are long and pointy. Their pointy wings help distinguish falcons from hawks. Hawk's wings are round in shape.

True Falcons

"True" falcons are any of about 35 species or birds in the genus Falco including the peregrine falcon, the prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus), the merlin (Falco columbarius) and the American kestrel (Falco sparverius).

Females in the Falco genus are larger than their male counterparts.

Other Falcons

Falco is by far the largest genus in the Falconidae family, but it's not the only one. Other genera include Microhierax (falconets) and Polihierax (pygmy falcon).

Where Do Falcons Live?

Like hawks, falcons can live almost anywhere. You can find the peregrine falcon, for example, on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. Some falcons migrate, while others stay put.

"They prefer wide-open spaces, and do well near coasts where shorebirds are common, but can be found from the tundra to deserts to forests," Rick Schwartz, San Diego Zoo Global Ambassador, told HowStuffWorks.

How Do Falcons Hunt?

Like hawks, falcons have excellent eyesight. Falcons are famous for their intense flying style (the flight patterns of hawks are more leisurely and rely more on gliding and hovering).

"A hunting peregrine typically catches its prey in the air with fast pursuits, rapid dives and other impressive aerial maneuvers for which these falcons are known and admired," says Schwartz.

"Peregrine falcons will sometimes dismember their prey and eat it in flight, or they will land with their prey in a safe spot, pluck the feathers and eat," Schwartz goes on to say. "They also have a sharp tooth at the end of their beak they can use to sever their prey's neck."

Identifying Hawks vs. Falcons

The National Audubon Society recommends the following for identifying large birds of prey like hawks and falcons.

  • First, check the size and wing shape. Bird hawks (genus Accipiter) are smaller with narrow tails, buzzard hawks (genus Buteo) are large birds with broad wings and short tails and falcons (genus Falco) have small, slender bodies and pointed wings.

  • Next, try to identify the species by its colored markings. The red-tailed hawk, for example, has a distinctive red tail (as its name suggests).

  • Finally, pay attention to the different flying styles. Falcons tend to flap their slender wings rapidly, while bird hawks glide or beat their broad wings slowly.

The best way to distinguish hawks and falcons from each other (and other birds) is to learn how to identify the specific falcon and/or hawk species that tend to frequent your area.

Original article: Hawk vs. Falcon: Spotting Differences Between Birds of Prey

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