Vulture vs. Hawk: What’s the Difference?

Vulture Vs Hawk

The avian kingdom is quite diverse, including birds as tiny as the hummingbirds and as large as the Eurasian Black Vultures. Considering this wide diversity, it is not surprising that people often get confused between two seemingly similar birds. Today, we will be discussing two such birds from the raptor family: vultures and hawks.

What’s the difference between Vulture and Hawk? The most significant difference between vultures and hawks is their size. Hawks are relatively small birds, with their average body length ranging from 30 to 45 centimeters. Vultures, on the other hand, are large birds, with their average body length ranging from 80 to 90 centimeters. Most species of vultures also have colorful plumages, while hawks generally have brown-colored plumes. The diets of these birds are also significantly different; while vultures feed on dead and decaying animals, hawks tend to hunt and eat fresh prey.

In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about the major and minor differences between these two majestic birds of prey. These will include differences in behavioral pattern, habitat, appearance, hunting style, diet, and more.


Vulture vs. Hawk: At a glance

Let’s start from the beginning, shall we? Whenever we are talking about Vultures and Hawks, the first few words that come into most people’s minds are “birds of prey” and “scavengers.” Let’s first understand what this means.

Birds that chase, hunt, and feed on other birds are referred to as birds of prey. These birds have a significant physical build that helps them hunt birds even in flight. Another significant physical feature that plays a big part in their hunting methods is their talons. We will be discussing them in more detail in the upcoming sections.

There are certain birds in the avian kingdom that almost always feed on dead creatures rather than hunting their own prey. They either wait for a sick animal or bird to die or feast on the leftovers of other predatory species. Such birds are referred to as scavengers, and Vultures are a prime example of the birds in this category.

Now that the terminology is clear, let’s move on to the next section. Here, we will be talking about some of the primary differences in various aspects between the two birds. Take a look at the table given below to get a basic idea of said differences:

  Vulture Hawk
Family Cathartidae (New World vulture)
Accipitridae (Old World vulture)
No. of species 22 species (7 new world species and 15 old world species) can be found all over the world. 250 species are found all over the world.
Length Vultures are usually 80 centimeters in length. The largest species is 1 meter long. Eagles? length varies from 29- 77 centimeters according to different species.
Weight The largest species weighs 12.5 kilograms. The average weight varies from 1.9-11 kilograms, based on species. The different species weigh between 280 g to 1.9 kilograms.
Wingspan The average wingspan is about 2 meters, but the largest species has a wingspan of 2.7 meters. The average wingspan is 80 centimeters. The red-tailed Hawks have a wingspan of 1.5 meters.
Lifespan 40-45 years 20 years
Eggs Laid Eggs are white with dark brown marks. They lay 1-3 eggs at a time. Eggs are white or bluish with brown spots. They lay 2-7 eggs at a time.
Gender Differentiation Both sexes of Vultures and Hawks have similar plumage, but the females are larger in size than their male counterparts.
Hunting Vultures rarely hunt. As scavengers, they rely on dead birds, reptiles, and mammals for food. Eagles are raptors that use their talons to hunt other birds, reptiles, and small mammals.
Nestling Vultures build nests on a tree or cliff. This nest is built using leaves and sticks and is used for several years. Eagles build nests on trees, cliffs, and rocky hills. It is made using sticks.
Vocal Vultures make a screeching sound. Eagles produce a loud cry.

Are Vultures and Hawks related?

After learning about the basic differences between vultures and hawks in the last section, you might be thinking that these two birds are not that similar after all. However, the question about whether or not vultures and hawks are related is still understandable.

From the table given in the last section, you must have noticed that the Old World Vultures and Hawks both belong to the family Accipitridae, while the New World Vultures belong to the Cathartidae.

However, despite being in the same family, Old World Vultures and Hawks do not share any major resemblance. In fact, even the Old World Vultures and the New World Vultures are not as similar as one would think. Read on to know about the differences among these birds in detail.

Taxonomy: How were Vultures and Hawks named?

Let’s first start with the differences in the taxonomy of Vultures and Hawks.

How are Vultures named?

While “vulture” is the widely used term for these birds in most parts of the world, they are commonly referred to as “Buzzards” in North America.

Now, let’s move on to the interesting part. As you already know by now, the Vultures are divided into two families. You might be wondering about the reason behind this unusual division. Well, that is what we are here to help you with.

You see, Old World Vultures have certain physical attributes that are similar to Hawks. Their slightly curved feet, along with their talons, are some examples. Although Vultures rarely hunt for their own food, the talons still play an essential role in gripping food. Thus, they’re placed under Accipitridae.

On the contrary, the New World Vultures have flat feet, which allow them to walk and even run. However, their feet also make it difficult for them to get a strong grip on their prey. Thus, they are placed under the family Cathartidae.

Now, the question arises, “Why are both the species named Vultures?”

Well, there are certain characteristic resemblances between the New World and Old World Vultures, with one being their highly similar appearance. Both species of Vultures have bald heads and necks. Also, the posture of both the bird species is somewhat hunched, and both chiefly prey on dead and decaying animals.

How are Hawks named?

As we have mentioned before, Vultures are widely known as buzzards in North America. However, in the rest of the world, Hawks are the ones that are commonly referred to as buzzards.

In the traditional languages of some regions, all raptors of the Accipitridae family are referred to as “Hawks,” except the eagles.

You might also come across certain ornithologists referring to Hawks as “buteo.” Let’s clear that confusion for you; a buteo is a different group that consists of the Buteogallus family. The birds in this family are also called “Hawks” as they are small-sized raptors that should be ideally placed under the category of eagles. However, this is a matter of debate and discoveries as to whether or not the buteo group can be called Hawks.


Differences in appearance

It is no secret to us that Vultures and Hawks have a distinguishable appearances. In this section, we’ll learn about the appearance of these birds in depth.

What do Vultures look like?

vulture | Characteristics, Species, & Facts | Britannica
Vulture Appearance

All the New World Vultures, and some Old World Vultures, have bare, featherless heads that help them enjoy a clean and uninterrupted meal. This is so that their feathers do not mix and create a mess with the blood of their dead prey.

The color of the plumage of Vultures varies significantly among the species. Most of the commonly found Vultures have a red-colored head, but it varies. The most colorful species of Vultures is the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa).

These vultures have a three-colored head and a bi-colored body. When it comes to adult vultures, we have noticed that the birds display significant sexual dimorphism, with the females being much larger than the males of all species.

What do Hawks look like?

Red-shouldered Hawk - eBird
Red-shouldered Hawk Appearance

On the contrary, Hawks are raptors with their characteristic talons. They have strong and notable feet that consist of four talons- three in the front and a large one in the back of their limbs. Their feet vary in color and are mostly found in shades of brown. Their long tails are a characteristic feature in the identification of the hawk species.

Hawks also have a curved bill that is ideal for tearing live prey, with muscular legs that play well with the talons to conceal their strength. Usually, they have reddish eyes, but they can vary from species to species.

Major differences in appearance

A primary factor that can help you differentiate between Vultures and Hawks is their size. Vultures are large birds, with their average body length ranging between 80-90 centimeters. Hawks, on the other hand, are smaller birds, with an average body length of about 40 centimeters.

For instance, the largest species of Vultures, the Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus), is around 1 meter long. Whereas the largest species of Hawks, the Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis), is only 27 inches long.

Another vital difference between these birds is their weight and body shape. As you already know, Vultures are the bigger birds between the two, and therefore are heavier in weight. For example, The Black Vulture weighs around 12.5 kilograms, whereas the largest hawk species, the Ferruginous Hawk, weighs somewhere around 1.36 kilograms.

Body structure
Vultures and Hawks can also be easily distinguished on the basis of their body structure. The Vultures have a characteristic V-shaped body, curving from the neck region. Both of these features collectively give the Vultures a somewhat hunched posture. Hawks, however, have a straight and erect posture, with no hunches or slouches whatsoever.

Vultures have no specific patterns on their body, except a silvery tip at the end of their long feathers. The colors of the bills in vultures range from yellowish to orange-red. Hawks, on the other hand, have a number of dark spots on the neck, breast, and leg region. These birds also have a downwards curved beak, usually black in color.

As we have already mentioned a few times before, vultures have flat feet that are black in color, with long sharp talons. In comparison, hawks have curved feet that are yellow in color, with sharp superior and posterior talons.


Differences in hunting styles and diet

By now, we’ve learned about the relationship between birds of prey and scavengers. Now, let’s study how vultures and hawks hunt for food and what their diet consists of.

Both Vultures and Hawks are wild birds. They are unsuitable for domestic upbringing as they are dangerous carnivores. They require a high amount of protein in their diet, which they fulfill from the consumption of meat. This meat might come from any creature like birds, reptiles, mammals, and even humans.

In the case of Hawks, hunting is their only choice for food. These birds rarely, if ever, feed on dead creatures. They believe in chasing, attacking, and killing their prey before eating it. To achieve this lifestyle, Hawks use more than seven different killing mechanisms. This is because, since they are small birds, they can’t hope to succeed at hunting using just one technique.

Now, how do they hunt? Hawks have strong feet that help them kill their prey. These feet are made up of three frontal talons and one large posterior talon, helping grip the prey and squeeze its (usually small) body till it is dead.

Hawks search for their prey by flying in circles within a chosen region. They have brilliant eyesight, and in fact, can see eight times better than humans. This helps them easily spot prey from the sky, and then they prepare to hunt it. Usually, they hide in bushes and wait for the right time to attack.

On the other hand, Vultures are scavengers. They rarely hunt a creature because they do not possess any special abilities or significant physical features to kill other birds, reptiles, or mammals. Often it is noticed that they wait for a creature to die before they start tearing it apart.

Different species of Vultures have different bill strengths. You will be amazed to see how patient Vultures are. Firstly, the larger and stronger billed species tear the prey apart and finish their feeding. Next comes the weak-billed species that would feed on the remaining cartilage. It is rare to see Vultures getting into a fight among their species for the proximity of food sources.

Differences between the digestive system of Vultures and Hawks

When it comes to the digestive system of these birds, vultures possess a corrosive digestive system, but hawks do not.

The reason behind it is that, since vultures are active scavengers and feed on dead and decaying animals, a corrosive digestive system is necessary for their survival. Their gut secretes corrosive acids that help the Vultures resist pathogens such as botulism and anthrax.

In fact, interestingly enough, it is suspected (although not proven) that vultures have very strong immune systems, as they never fall sick despite the number of infection-causing microbes in their diet.

On the other hand, hawks do not possess such abilities. They can easily get sick if they consume sick or contaminated prey. To avoid this, they are characterized to hunt and eat fresh meat.


Differences in habitats and nesting preferences

In the last section, we explored the differences in the hunting styles and diet of vultures and hawks. Now, let’s move on to talk about the differences in their habitats and nesting preferences.

Vultures usually reside in deserted areas with little to no trees. These areas help them spot food sources easily while flying or while simply walking on the ground. Most species do not build nests at all, laying their eggs on the ground.

However, some of the species that do build nests prefer to do in on tree hollows, caves, abandoned buildings, and ledges. The structure of the nests varies from species to species. Vultures are also known for using a single nest for several years.

On the contrary, hawks can be spotted in every possible habitat in the world. They live in wetlands, deserts, highlands, meadows, forests, rain forests, marshes, polar regions, etc. You can also find them in urban settlements nowadays, mostly as a consequence of increasing deforestation. They build their nests on tall trees and cliffs.


Differences in behavior

In this section, we will be discussing the differences between Hawks and Vultures on the basis of their behavioral patterns.

Let’s start by talking about the Vultures’ behavioral habits. They’re usually found in flocks or committees and fly in circles for hours; a group of these scavengers is called a “kettle.”

Interestingly enough, Vultures are harmless birds that rarely behave in an aggressive manner. As we’ve mentioned before, they patiently wait for their live prey to die before eating them. They do not even harm humans, as they do not possess the structure to do so. However, these birds will sometimes spew projectile vomit as a defense mechanism.

Let’s now talk about their breeding habits. Vultures are polygamous, taking up a new mating partner every breeding season. They attract potential mates by wandering on the ground in circles, with their wings partially spread. After mating, both the parents co-parent their eggs during and after the incubation period.

On the other hand, hawks are more of a solitary group, preferring to live alone, except during their mating season. This is because they actively hunt their prey and can quickly fall into a competition of chasing the prey first or sharing it. This is also the reason why they can never be found in flocks.

As far as their breeding habits are concerned, hawks are known to be monogamous. However, some of these birds can also be seen changing their mates every few years. They attract their potential mates by a display of dominance, usually by using high-pitched vocals while flying in circles.




As we come to the end of this article, let’s recap everything we have learned today. Vultures and Hawks are both mighty birds of prey, but that is where the similarities between these birds end.

There is a drastic difference in the body length, weight, and structure of these birds, and also in their plumage. Moreover, their habitats and nesting preferences are also very different from each other. Eagles mostly live alone, while Vultures prefer to live, travel, and hunt in flocks.

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