Falcon vs Hawk: How to Tell the Difference

These raptors look similar at a glance. But with a keen eye to the sky, you can learn to distinguish between a falcon vs a hawk.

Peregrine FalconTze-hsin Woo/Getty Images
Like other falcons, the peregrine can reach high speeds in flight.

Often viewed soaring solo high in the sky, hawks and falcons are a marvel to watch. But these birds of prey pose challenges when it comes to identifying a falcon vs a hawk. Both have similar characteristics, and are common throughout the continguous United States. But they belong to different families. Falcons are in the Falconidae family, and hawks are in the Accipitridae family.

As similar as hawks and falcons are, there are key differences. Being able to distinguish between the two comes down to knowing what to look for.

Check out these essential hawk identification tips for birders.

Falcon vs Hawk: Flight Pattern, Speed and Size

Merlin falcon vs hawk© Nick Saunders/Getty Images
Merlins have narrow, pointed wings.

Falcons have aerodynamic bodies, and wings that beat rapidly when flying, enabling them to reach high speeds. The peregrine falcon is the fastest moving bird on record, flying up to 60 miles per hour, and diving up to 200 mph. Hawks flap their wings slowly while flying, and soar while gliding in circles using the heat from thermals to keep them aloft and conserve energy. Hawks reach speeds of under 40 mph, and dive up to 120 mph.

Falcons are generally smaller birds than hawks. They typically measure 8 to 26 inches compared to hawks, which measure 18 to 30 inches. But keep in mind that a large falcon, such as a peregrine or a gyrfalcon, is bigger than a small sharp-shinned hawk.

Learn how to identify a red-tailed hawk.

What’s All the Flap About? Wing Shape

306605774 1 Michael Sprintz Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Michael Sprintz
Red-shouldered hawk wings are broader and more rounded in shape.

Even from far away, one can distinguish features of falcon vs hawk wings while in flight. Hawk wings are generally shorter and broader than a falcon’s long, narrow wings. The tips of falcon wings are pointed, whereas the ends of hawk wings look rounded and smooth.

If you’re able to focus binoculars on a perched falcon or hawk, note the shape of the head. A falcon’s head is short and rounded, and a hawk’s head is often larger, more pointed and distinctive.

Meet 9 types of hawks you should know.

Grasp the Differences: Beaks and Talons

276267250 1 Julia Rice Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Julia Rice
American kestrels use their small hooked beaks primarily to eat insects.

Falcons and hawks are carnivores, and use their powerful talons to catch prey, and their sharp, hooked beaks to tear their food. But each kills its prey differently. Hawks use their talons, and falcons rely on a notch, called a tomial tooth, on the side of their beaks to inflict the final blow to their prey.

Hawks eat mice, rats, fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, and insects. Falcons eat mainly smaller birds, although may also eat insects. Smaller species of falcons, such as kestrels, prefer insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, moths and beetles. Larger falcons, such as peregrines, eat waterfowl, shorebirds and domestic piegons. The osprey (hawk) diet is almost exclusively fish.

Discover more fascinating falcon bird facts you should know.

Nesting Habits

falcon vs hawkCourtesy Lynne Sadler
Hawks nest in treetops and typically do not use bird houses or cavities.

Hawks often nest at the top of tall trees. They’ll use large sticks, twigs, bark and its own feathers to build a nest, and may reuse it for many years. Falcons seek ledges on rock cliffs, and have adapted to using tall buildings and bridges. The American kestrel is the smallest falcon, and will use natural and artificial cavities such as manmade nest boxes 10 to 30 feet off the ground.

Ospreys build large nests from sticks, bones, seaweed, and other nests in tall trees, on the ground in colonies in isolated islands, and on human-made nesting platforms built just for them in parks and refuges.

Lifespan

falcon vs hawk osprey nestCourtesy Donald Pearse Sr
Osprey and other hawks mate for life

Most hawks pair for life, which on average is 20 years. If one partner dies, the other will find a new mate. Likewise, falcons generally mate for life, and have an average lifespan of 13 years.

Next, find out if hawk sightings have special meaning?

Monica Cardoza
Monica Cardoza is a freelance writer covering outdoor recreation and conservation with bylines in The Washington Post, Audubon, Sierra, and New Jersey Monthly. She has a journalism degree from New York University, and a master's in publishing from Pace University. She's a former editor for The New York Times Syndicate, and a current member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Garden Communicators International, and the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. She volunteers as programs chair for a 107-acre nature preserve in northern New Jersey, The Celery Farm (fykenature.org).
As part of Monica's passion for encouraging Birds & Blooms readers to explore and understand their outdoors, she interviews conservationists, scientists and leaders specializing in birding and plants. Among her favorite articles she's written for Birds & Blooms are pieces about backyard optics, creating a safe yard for hummingbirds, and the women behind Birdability, which seeks to make birding more accessible. Monica lives in Ridgewood, N.J., with her husband and daughter.