Falcon vs. Eagle vs. Hawk: Your Guide to Three Families of Raptors

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Falcons, eagles, and hawks are all impressive birds. But some may struggle to understand the differences between these different birds of prey.

So let’s take a closer look at these three different types of birds to learn a little more about them, how to distinguish between them, and how they compare.

What are Falcons?

falcon

Falcons are birds of prey within the Falco genus, which includes around 40 different species of birds. This genus is the largest within the Falconinae subfamily of the Falconidae.

North American species of falcon are:

  • The Merlin – Falco columbarius
  • The Prairie falcon – Falco mexicanus
  • The Peregrine falcon – Falco peregrinus
  • The Gyrfalcon – Falco rusticolus
  • The American kestrel – Falco sparverius

What are Eagles?

Eagle

Eagle is the common name for many large birds of prey of the family Accipitridae. There are 60 eagle species globally, though only two of these, the bald eagle and the golden eagle, are found in North America.

What are Hawks?

hawk

Hawks are birds of prey of the family Accipitridae (the same family as eagles but a different family than falcons). This includes birds in the Accipitrinae subfamily.

However, in America, the term hawk is also used to refer to the Buteo group, called buzzards in other parts of the world. The terms accipitrine hawk and buteonine hawk are used to distinguish between the types in regions where hawk applies to both.

Globally, there are over 200 different hawk species. Of these, at least 17 hawks can be found in North America. The most widespread species of hawks across the United States and Canada are:

  • Broad-winged Hawk – Buteo platypterus
  • Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii
  • Ferruginous Hawk – Buteo regalis
  • Northern Goshawk – Accipiter gentilis
  • Red-shouldered Hawk – Buteo lineatus
  • Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis
  • Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo lagopus
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – Accipiter striatus
  • Swainson’s Hawk – Buteo swainsoni

The Common Black-Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Gray Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Zone-tailed Hawk can be found in the southern states and Mexico.

The accipitrine hawks generally hunt birds as their primary prey. They are also called “hen-hawks” or “wood-hawks” because of their woodland habitat.

Generally, buteos have broad wings and sturdy builds. They are relatively larger-winged, shorter-tailed, and fly farther in open areas than accipiters.

Similarities Between Falcons, Eagles, and Hawks

Falcons, eagles, and hawks are all birds of prey, raptors which eat meat. Eagles and hawks belong to the same family, as mentioned above, and while falcons are not in this family, they still have several shared characteristics.

All are highly successful predators in their environments and are fast, lethal, and intelligent – traits that can simultaneously make them both impressive and rather alarming.

However, looking more closely at these types of birds, you will soon begin to see many differences between them.

Differences Between Falcons, Eagles, and Hawks

Differences between falcons, eagles, and hawks include visual differences in size, body shape, and plumage, as well as differences in range, habitat, and behavior.

Specific differences depend on the particular species we are discussing. But there are also some broad differences between these three groups.

One thing to mention is that falcons kill with their beaks, using a “tooth” on the side of their beaks—unlike the hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey in the Accipitridae, which use their feet.

Falcons tend to be smaller and more slightly built. They are very agile and swift and can quickly change direction when flying. They have more pointed wings, which are relatively more narrow.

Most eagles are larger than any other raptors apart from some vultures. They are large and powerfully built, with heavy heads and beaks. An eagle’s beak is typically heavier than most other birds of prey.

It has also been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking their target (or shortly thereafter); predation is, after all, a two-edged sword. All predatory birds seem to have this habit, from the smallest kestrel to the largest Ferruginous – but not eagles.

Accipitrine hawks are narrow and long in shape, with short, sharp wing movements when in flight. They are most commonly seen in wooded areas.

Buteo hawks descend or pounce on their prey rather than hunting in fast horizontal pursuit. They have broader bodies than other hawks and infrequent wing movements.

Another thing used to distinguish between these types of birds is their calls. Falcons tend to screech and whistle, eagle vocalization tends to be characterized as screeching, and hawks tend to emit hoarse screams.

Which Birds of Prey are Largest?

Of falcons, eagles, and hawks, eagles are certainly the largest.

By median wingspan, the golden eagle is the fourth largest eagle in the world, with a median wingspan of 207 centimeters (81 inches).

The size of falcons and hawks greatly depends upon the species in question.

Which Birds of Prey are More Powerful?

The bald eagle is noted for having flown with the heaviest load verified to be carried by any flying bird. One eagle flew with a 6.8 kilogram (15 pounds) mule deer fawn. Golden eagles can also carry remarkably heavy prey. Golden and crowned eagles have also killed larger prey weighing up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds).

Golden eagles can grip their sharp talons at as much as 750 psi. And the bald eagle has a grip strength of around 400 psi.

Many hawks are known to be able to grip at above 200 psi.

Which Birds of Prey are Fastest?

Peregrine falcons have been recorded diving at speeds of 200 miles per hour (mph), making them the fastest birds and fastest-moving creatures on Earth; the fastest recorded dive attained a vertical speed of 240 mph.

The golden eagle is another extremely fast bird. This majestic bird can fly with a maximum airspeed of 200 mph.

The fastest hawk, the red-tailed hawk, can reach top speeds of around 120 mph.

Which Birds of Prey have the Best Eyesight?

Falcons have exceptional powers of vision; the visual acuity of one species has been measured at 2.6 times that of an average human.

It is estimated that the martial eagle, whose eyes are more than two times larger than the human eye, has a visual acuity of up to eight times that of humans. This excellent eyesight enables eagles to spot potential prey from a very long distance.

Hawks, like most birds, have four types of color receptors in the eye. These give hawks the ability to perceive the visible range and ultraviolet light. Adaptations also allow hawks to detect polarized light or magnetic fields due to a large number of photoreceptors in the retina (up to 1,000,000 per square millimeter in Buteo, compared to 200,000 in humans). They are also sometimes said to see eight times more clearly than a human.

Of course, there are many differences between specific types of falcon, eagle, and hawk, and a lot more to learn about distinguishing between birds within these three groups. But the above should give you a starting point and let you dig even deeper to find out more about specific species of these amazing apex predators.

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Elizabeth Waddington

Elizabeth Waddington is a conservation, rewilding, organic gardening and sustainability specialist who loves everything nature-related. She loves helping others around the world connect with the wildlife and wonders around them. When not creating wildlife-wise, eco-friendly designs, or writing about the topics that inspire her, she loves spending time watching the birds on and around her own rural property, or heading out on camping or hiking adventures to spot birds and other wildlife in a range of habitats.