The raptors are the most powerful group of birds in the avian world. They’re fast, lethal, and intelligent, qualities that make them majestic and frightening at the same time. Although their family is quite diverse, only the vultures and the owls can be most easily distinguished from the rest due to their unique physical features.
When it comes to birds like falcons, hawks, and eagles, these birds appear to be very similar; it’s difficult to differentiate them. If you too are confused between hawk, eagle, and falcon, this article will clear your confusion.
So, what is the difference between hawks, eagles, and falcons? Hawks, eagles, and falcons are very different from each other if you look closely. Hawks are medium-sized birds that have broad wings and tails. Eagles, the largest of the three, are sturdily built with heavy heads and beaks. And falcon, the smallest, has wings that are tapered and pointy-edged. In the terms of strength, eagles are the strongest. While when it comes to speed, the falcons outdo the others.
In this article, we will help you distinguish between these three raptors on the basis of their appearance, vocalization, habitat, hunting techniques, and several other grounds.
Introduction to raptors
Also referred to as “birds of prey”, raptors are a large family of carnivorous (and scavenging) birds that are at the top of the avian food chain. The term “raptor” is derived from the Latin word “rapio”, which means taking something by force.
Although theoretically, all the other carnivore birds, such as storks, gulls, and penguins, should also be considered raptors, the ornithologists use it in a narrower sense. According to them, the following are the birds that belong to the raptor family:
- True Hawks
- Vultures (both Old World and New World Vultures)
Hawk vs. Eagle vs. Falcon: At a glance
The raptor family consists of over 500 different species, and hawks, eagles, and falcons are three of its primary groups, containing over 350 species.
Before we begin our discussion on how these three are different from each other, below is a table containing crucial information about them. Take a look:
|No. of species
|Hawks are smaller than eagles but larger than falcons.
|Eagles are the largest raptors of all three.
Falcons are the smallest raptors of all three.
(18 inches – 3 feet 5 inches)
|75 grams – 2.2 kilograms
|453 grams – 9.5 kilograms
80 grams – 1.3 kilograms
|about 13 years
|112 centimeters – 2.5 meters
(44 inches – 8 feet 2 inches)
an alarming call ranging between a shriek and a whistle.
|large insects, small birds, and rodents.
|snakes, waterfowls, fish, turtles, and mammals.
small birds, rabbits, and bats.
|bulky nests made up of sticks and twigs; placed on trees, and on rocky cliffs occasionally.
|large nests made of sticks; placed on tree branches.
make their nest in a scrape or shallow depression.
|bluish-white eggs with light brown spots on them;
2-7 eggs in a single clutch
|white eggs, with faint brown splotches occasionally;
1-3 eggs in a single clutch
whitish eggs with dark brown markings;
3-4 eggs in a single clutch
Differences in appearance
The appearance of hawks, eagles, and falcons is one of the major reasons for confusion between their identity. As many would claim, these raptors appear strikingly similar from a fair distance. But do they really resemble each other, even from up close? That’s what we’re going to find out in this section.
What do hawks look like?
Although all hawks are medium-sized raptors, the individual birds of this group vary greatly in size and other physical features. To study their appearance more closely, you can divide the hawks into two different groups:
As the name itself suggests, the Accipitrine hawks belong to the subfamily “Acciptrinae”. These hawks are also referred to as “true hawks”, and are primarily forest-dwellers.
They have a lean frame, narrow wings, and a long, narrow tail. While flying, these birds flap their wings in short, rapid flaps, often punctuated by a long glide. Sparrowhawks, goshawks, and sharp-shinned hawks are all accipitrine hawks.
The buteonine hawks are called “hawks” only in America; outside of America, they’re known as “buzzards”. These hawks inhabit open landscapes and have a larger and sturdier body than the accipitrines.
Their wings are also broader than the former, with their tail being short and broad. When they’re flying, they use sparse and labored wing beats.
The Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) is the largest hawk species in the world, and the Tiny Hawk (Accipiter superciliosus) is the smallest.
What do eagles look like?
Eagles are a large family of raptors considered to be one of the most powerful birds of prey in the world. The most distinguishing feature of these birds is their large size; they are significantly larger than both hawks and falcons. A simple definition of eagles is “any raptor that is large enough to prey on sizeable vertebrates”.
As we’ve already mentioned earlier, eagles have a powerful built, with a heavy head and beak. Like all raptors, they have strong talons, muscular legs, and a sharp, hooked bill. Eagles also possess broad and even wings, which are responsible for their faster, more direct flight.
The Stellar’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) is the largest eagle species in the world, and the South Nicobar Serpent Eagle (Spilornis klossi) is the smallest.
The large family of eagles is informally divided into four different groups:
Fish Eagles: Also referred to as “Sea Eagles”, fish eagles are eagles that primarily feed on fish (either fresh or carrion). Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and Madagascar Fish-eagles (Haliaeetus vociferoides) are some examples of fish eagles.
Snake Eagles: As their name suggests, snakes eagles are eagles that hunt almost exclusively on reptiles. Brown Snake Eagles (Circaetus cinereus) and Short-toed Snake Eagles (Circaetus galicus) are some examples of snake eagles.
Harpy Eagles: Also known as “giant forest eagles”, the harpy eagles are large eagles that inhabit tropical forests. Harpy Eagles (Harpia harpyja) and Crested Eagles (Morphnus guianensis) are some species of these eagles.
Booted Eagles: Referred to as “true eagles”, the booted eagles are eagle species with lower legs covered in feathers, making them appear to be wearing boots. Eagles that belong to this group are Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus) and Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax).
What do falcons look like?
The falcons are medium-sized birds (smaller than hawks and eagles) and possess a slender body. The wings of these raptors are not as broad as the others but are tapered and pointy-edged, which enables them to change directions swiftly mid-flight. In terms of size, the falcons are quite diverse and can roughly be divided into three groups.
The first group consists of the Kestrels: falcons with a small and stocky body and feed mostly on insects, rodents, and reptiles. All the falcons in this group have a brown upperside (except three African species with gray upperside).
The second group is of slightly larger falcons, consisting of Hobbies and their relatives. They have a characteristic have a large amount of slate-grey on their plumage. These birds feed almost exclusively on smaller birds.
The third group belongs to Peregrine Falcons and their relatives. The birds in this group might be sized variably, but most of them have a black cap atop their heads.
The Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon species globally, and the Pygmy Falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus) is the smallest.
Differences in vocalization
It might come as a surprise to many, but the raptors are generally silent birds. Their silence often gives them an edge over their prey. These birds will only vocalize in dire circumstances, i.e., when they’re in danger or are trying to warn their partners. Most of the male birds also vocalize during the breeding season as a part of the mating ritual.
Let’s learn more about the vocalization of hawks, eagles, and falcons.
What do hawks sound like?
The adult hawks have a hoarse voice and produce a “keee-eeee-arrr” scream, often while soaring. In the breeding season, these birds also produce a shrill chwirk to call out to their partners. Their calls are 2-3 seconds long.
What do eagles sound like?
The vocalization of the eagles is in stark contrast with their personality. These mighty birds produce a series of weak, high-pitched whistles. At times, you can also hear them producing piping notes.
What do falcons sound like?
Falcons are the most vocal of the three raptors. Their call is a constant “kak-kak-kak”, which sounds very similar to an alarm clock. When these birds are excited or sense danger in their vicinity, they’re also known to produce a call that sounds like a mixture of whistle and shriek.
Differences in habitat
The populations of hawks, eagles, and falcons are widely distributed and found on all continents except Antarctica. And while the habitat preferences of individual species might vary, as a whole, they’re not all that different. You can find all three of them in rainforests, mountains, deserts, prairies, savannahs, and coastal areas. These birds have also adapted to living in urban areas.
Differences in diet
Although it might seem like all the raptors have more or less the same diet, on close examination, you can notice the differences:
The diet of hawks
Birds make up a considerable portion of all hawks’ diets. While some species might have individual preferences, their common targets are doves, robins, corvids, chickadees, and other songbirds. Small mammals like rodents (squirrels, voles, chipmunks, rats), rabbits, and shrews are their primary prey.
Hawks also prey on reptiles. However, most species stick with lizards and turtles. Only some species, such as Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, specialize in hunting venomous snakes.
Hawks, particularly the buteonine ones, enjoy feeding on all invertebrates outside of their breeding season. All insects, ranging from crickets to dragonflies, are equally loved by them.
The diet of eagles
Eagles are the kind of carnivores that can feed on both living animals and carrion meat. Their diet is quite varied, with some individuals preferring certain kinds of prey over others. Let’s take a quick look at their diet:
Fish: A majority of eagle species enjoy feeding on fish. In fact, fish constitute over 90% of the diet of some eagle species. These birds prefer catfish and shad, as these are easier to catch.
Reptiles: All the snake eagle species are primarily reptile-eaters and enjoy feeding on snakes, lizards, tortoises, turtles, and even baby crocodiles at times. Other than these species, the Bald Eagles also enjoy hunting snakes occasionally.
Other birds: All eagles prey on other birds. Some larger species are even known to prey on other, smaller eagle species occasionally. Although seabirds and waterfowl are the common targets of the eagles, they can prey on any smaller bird.
Mammals: Of all the three raptors we’re discussing here, eagles are most likely to prey on mammals larger than rodents. These birds often hunt kittens, puppies, hedgehogs, mongoose, pigs, lambs, and occasionally even the younger ones of deer.
The diet of falcons
The diet of falcons primarily (70-99%) consists of smaller birds. The common preys of these raptors include blackbirds, pigeons, starlings, black jays, ducks, grebes, gulls, and songbirds. Because of their similarity to birds, bats often end up becoming falcons’ food as well. Apart from birds, fish is also a popular meal choice for the falcons.
Occasionally, when they can’t find any bird or fish to eat, falcons might also hunt for food on the ground and feed on rodents (mice, rats, squirrels, gophers), reptiles (lizards), and amphibians (toads and frogs).
Smaller falcon species, such as the kestrels, seem to enjoy feeding on insects the most. Crickets, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, and worms are their common target.
Differences in nesting preferences
The nests of raptors are also known as an “Eyrie”. Following are the nesting habits of hawks, eagles, and falcons:
Nesting habits of hawks
Hawks build their nests on the highest branches of mature trees. These birds are very territorial and will keep using the same nest all their lives until the tree finally breaks down under its heavyweight.
They are also seen defending their nests fiercely against all intruders, be it other raptors or even humans. The Ferruginous Hawks are the only exception to this; these hawks often abandon their nests if disturbed by humans.
The size of a hawk’s nest is quite large and can even measure about 3-4 feet across. Both sexes participate in the nest-building process, collecting sticks, twigs, barks, moss, and any other nesting material they can find.
Nesting habits of eagles
When it comes to nesting, the eagles are just like the hawks and are often found returning to the same nest year after year, as long as it’s functional.
In fact, most eagles bring more nesting materials every year to refurnish their old nest. It is why, after some years, their nests become so heavy that the trees are no longer capable of supporting them and fall. When such a thing happens, the pair often pick a site nearby to build their new nest.
When the eagles build their first nest, it might take them about a month to build it. However, from the next year, they can reinstate it within a week. Their nest is quite large and contains a cup-shaped hollow in the middle, where their eggs are laid.
These birds mostly use sticks to build the nest’s structure, but in some cases, animal bones and wires are also found to be used. The inside of the nest is lined with soft materials like moss and downy feathers of the adults.
Nesting habits of falcons
The falcons are not much of the traditional nest-builders. In fact, their nests can barely be called a “nest”. Instead of collecting nesting materials like twigs, sticks, and grasses and bringing them to their nesting site, these birds simply lie down and push their feet back to make a shallow depression in the gravel or debris and lay their eggs inside it. The nesting location is chosen by the females and is often on a cliff edge.
Differences in speed
If you compare hawks, eagles, and falcons, you will find that falcons have the edge over the others on the grounds of their speed. These birds might not be the largest or most lethal raptors, but they’re certainly the fastest. Let’s compare them:
Among the hawks, the Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are the fastest and can fly at 190 km/h. Among the eagles, the Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) can fly at the speed of 320 km/h and are, therefore, the fastest.
However, the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) beats them both. These birds have a maximum diving speed of 390 km/h. Therefore, they are considered to be not just the fastest bird but also the fastest animal on the planet, surpassing even Cheetahs, the fastest land animals.
Hawk vs. Eagle vs. Falcon: Who will win in a fight?
If you’ve been paying attention so far, it is evident that the fight between the eagles and any of the two raptors would be an unfair one. The eagles have an undeniable edge over these two in terms of size and strength and are most likely to win.
However, if there’s a fight between a hawk and a falcon, it is difficult to predict which bird will win. While hawks have an advantage of size over the falcons, the latter is much faster.
When it comes to differentiating between the birds of prey, most of them, except vultures and owls, do have several similarities in their appearance. Hawks, eagles, and falcons are particularly difficult to distinguish unless examined closely. If you’re someone who faces trouble identifying these birds, the elaborate discussion about their differences in this article will undoubtedly prove to be helpful for you.