Hawks vs. Owls: A Face-Off Between Two Powerful Birds

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Hawks and owls are two of the most impressive raptors in the skies.

Even though they have a lot in common, they’re also quite distinct in their characteristics. You won’t usually find these types of birds interacting with each other, even if they live in the same area.

However, certain circumstances cause hawks and owls to confront one another. In a fight between a hawk and an owl, who would win? Why would hawks and owls get into a fight in the first place?

Which Is Stronger: an Owl or a Hawk?

Owls and hawks are both incredibly powerful birds. Red-tailed hawks have an estimated grip pressure of 200 pounds per squire inch (PSI), while goshawks may be able to grip as high as 400 PSI.

Great-horned owls can grip between 200 and 500 PSI!

And at the end of that grip? Razor-sharp talons!!

Clearly, both owls and hawks are adept at capturing their wriggling and fighting prey. Both predatory birds have the perfect tools to hunt. In a conflict, the strength of an owl and a hawk would be comparable.

Owl Speed vs. Hawk Speed

In addition to being strong, owls and hawks are also fast.

In normal circumstances, most birds fly between 20 and 50 miles per hour. Hawks and owls both fly around 40 miles per hour when they’re in normal flight. However, in a dive, red-tailed hawks can hit speeds of up to 120 mph!

Owls move quickly when they dive, but nowhere near as quickly or as decisively as a hawk.

Hawk Diet vs. Owl Diet

Hawks and owls eat similar diets, but there are a few differences.

Hawks’ typical prey includes a variety of small rodents, bugs, reptiles, and animals. Voles, squirrels, mice, frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes–these are all things that hawks can spot from incredibly far away, then swoop down and grab.

Spotted owlet

They will also catch and kill backyard chickens and other small poultry.

Owls eat other nocturnal animals. They thrive on a diet of small rodents, including voles, shrews, and mice. The larger the owl, the larger the animals it can eat. A very large species will eat larger prey, like juvenile foxes, rabbits, and ducks.

Other Differences Between Hawks and Owls

The other major differences between hawks and owls can be divided into three categories: appearance, habitat, and behavior.

It’s usually pretty easy for most birders to differentiate between hawks and owls, but sometimes you may only have a few clues about the bird you’ve encountered. This information should help you draw a good conclusion if there is any uncertainty!

Appearance Differences Between Hawks vs Owls

Some of the most common breeds of owls are tufted owls, great-horned owls, short-eared owls, long-eared owls, Eastern screech owls, barred owls, barn owls, snowy owls, and great gray owls. The differences in the appearance of one species to the next can vary widely.

There are just as many different kinds of hawks, including red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, northern goshawks, Harris’s hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and ferruginous hawks.

A Red-tailed hawk

When comparing hawks and owls, you will find:

  • Owls have larger heads compared to the rest of their bodies, whereas hawks have small heads.
  • Hawks and owls both come in a variety of colors. That said, in North America, you are incredibly unlikely to see an all-white hawk, even though you have a chance of seeing a white owl. That’s because White hawks live only in Central and South America, but snowy owls can be found in Canada and the northern United States.
  • An owl’s beak is curved, and a hawk’s beak is hooked. Both of them have beaks that are made for ripping and tearing animal flesh.
  • Most owls have feathered legs. Hawks’ legs are scaled, not feathered.
  • Owls tend to have shorter tails compared to hawks’ longer tails.
  • Owls have feathers that are uniquely effective at achieving silent flight. That is a big part of what makes them such deadly predators!
  • An owl has very large eyes that take up nearly all of its skull! Hawks’ eyes are on either side of their head.
  • Most species of hawks have slightly smaller talons than most species of owls.

The biggest visual difference between hawks and owls is the head shape. Not only is the owl’s head much larger, but it sits on one of the most fascinating necks in the animal kingdom. An owl can rotate its head up to 270 degrees!

Habitat Differences Between Hawks and Owls

Owls and hawks will typically live in the same general areas. They can be found in the mountains and in areas with great expanses of flat land. They thrive in all seasons and in both deserts and wetlands. Owls and hawks are both found throughout North America and beyond.

However, their nesting habits differ significantly. 

Hawks prefer to build large nests high in the treetops. These sturdy nests can be up to 3 or 4 feet wide. Made from sticks, bark, and moss, they are the perfect place for females to lay a clutch of 2-5 eggs.

Hawks will even return to the same nest each year, for as many years as possible, until it can no longer be repaired.

Owls, on the other hand, frequently nest in tree hollows. They don’t build these holes themselves; they find holes that have been left behind by other critters or birds and move right in.

Some owls will also nest in the rafters of a barn or in a silo. Others will take over an old nest that was left behind by a different bird species.

Behavioral Differences Between Hawks and Owls

The key reason why hawks and owls interact so rarely is that they have completely different schedules.

Hawks are diurnal birds, so they are active during the day. While hawks are awake and hunting, owls are sleeping in their burrows.

Owls, however, are nocturnal birds. Therefore, they wake up to hunt at night when hawks are settling down in their nests. 

Hawks don’t have the kind of excellent eyesight that owls do. Owls can see incredibly well at night, which allows them to hunt for nocturnally-active creatures. Hawks have to limit their hunting to the daytime.

This means that hawks and owls rarely have a chance to encounter each other to have any sort of territorial conflict. Most of the time, these two birds of prey just ignore one another.

Do Hawks and Owls Really Fight?

It becomes pretty clear that hawks and owls are a pretty good match for one another in any sort of talon-to-talon combat. They’re both strong, smart, and agile species that are accustomed to being at the top of their food chains.

In a fight, it’s a bit of a toss-up to say who would win!

But perhaps a better question is this: why would hawks and owls fight in the first place?

A Hungry Hawk is a Dangerous Hawk

Hawks are champion hunters, and they will eat many different birds if the opportunity presents itself. They’re especially likely to go after baby birds. An unprotected owl’s nest would be a tempting sight for a hungry hawk!

In this video, you can see a red-tailed hawk trying to grab a fledgling great-horned owl while its mother goes on the offensive.

A hawk doesn’t have any reason to pick a fight with an adult owl, but it may be willing to attack a nest or a lone juvenile if it is on the hunt.

Owls Are a Dangerous Enemy

While hawks are a threat to baby owls, adult owls can be a formidable enemy for full-grown hawks.

Hawks don’t have the keen eyesight of owls, which means that they are at a disadvantage at night. Thanks to its huge eyes that let in tons of light, an owl can see everything it needs to see in the darkness to be a perfect hunter.

It also has those unique feathers that allow it to fly completely silently through the air!

In this super short clip, an owl snatches a hawk from its nest without any warning! Notice how the owl doesn’t have to go after a juvenile hawk or a baby. Its strength as a hunter surpasses the hawk’s ability to respond or fight back.

When It’s Hawk vs. Owl, Somebody Is Going to Win

In those rare times when hawks and owls fight, it’s not easy to predict who will “win.”

These are two incredible predators that you’ll be lucky to see in action. If you ever glimpse a fight between them, you’re seeing something truly uncommon for birders!

Hawks and owls have their own unique beauty and strength. I know that when I see a hawk on the side of the road, scanning for its prey, I feel like I just saw something lucky! And when I hear two great-horned owls late at night, calling to one another, I’ve just heard something really special.

If you want to spot more hawks and owls this year, learn to be attentive to your surroundings, including what you see and what you hear. Maybe you’ll even end up seeing something remarkable like a hawk vs. owl fight, and you can let us know who won!

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Liz Ranfeld

Liz Boltz Ranfeld is an independent educator and writer from Indiana. She lives on the edge of the woods with her husband, 2 kids, dogs, chickens, and hedgehog. One of the best things of living in rural Indiana is spotting hawks, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and other wild creatures. She enjoys hiking, canoeing, and gardening, and one of her personal heroes is the conservationist and birdwatcher Rosalie Barrow Edge, who paved the way for the protection of birds around the globe.