Falcon vs. Hawk: 8 Main Differences Explained

Written by Rebecca
Updated: December 15, 2022
© A-Z-Animals.com
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Key Points:

  • Size is the most obvious difference between falcons and hawks. Hawks most often measure between 18 and 30 inches long. Falcons are typically 8 to 26 inches.
  • There are other physical differences between falcons and hawks to spot. Their coloring, wingspan, wing shape, and head shape can all help when trying to tell them apart.
  • Falcons and hawks also differ in their behavior patterns. They use different body parts to kill prey, choose different types of locations for their nests, and have different flying styles.

Hawks and falcons are both birds of prey. However, you may have likely heard people using the terms interchangeably. The reality is that they are two different species of birds. Hawks are adaptable but prefer living in the open spaces of North America, Central America, Jamaica, and the West Indies. Falcons live in several countries all over the world.

On the other hand, there is a difference between what the common names refer to with regards to specific birds and what they mean in training birds of prey, or raptors. The keeping of any trained captive birds of prey is called falconry, which used to be called “hawking,” and any of the birds of prey in falconry can be called hawks.

Why are the birds in the Accipitrine group called hawks, but the birds in the Buteo group are either called hawks, buzzards, or hawk-buzzards depending on where they are?

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We’ll see what makes a true hawk or true falcon and the differences between them below!

Comparing Falcon vs Hawk

Size8-30in L (large)8-26in L (petite to medium)
ColorBrownish & greyish plumage, pale, striped undersideBlack-barred wings (females), bluish-grey (males)
WingsWide, rounded, short; wingspan 17-44 inPointed, slender, long; wingspan 29-47 in (peregrine)
Head shapeSmooth, pointy headsRound, short heads
HabitatAdaptable; woodlands, forests, rural areas, deserts, fields, mountainous plains, tropical areasUsually open country
TaxonomySubfamilies Accipitrinae and Buteoninae in family Accipitridae and order Accipitriformes; 2 groups; over 250 speciesGenus Falco in subfamily Falconidae, family Falconidae, and order Falconiformes 3-4 groups; 37 species
Killing methodFeet and talonsTooth on beak
DietSmall mammalsGround vertebrates, smaller birds
NestsHigh in treesTree hollows
Flying styleSlow fluttering while flying in circles or brief flapping followed by glidingBrief, rapid flapping, speed of over 100mph

8 Key Differences Between Falcon and Hawk

Falcon vs Hawk: Size

By far, the biggest difference between the two birds of prey is their size. Although both have females being larger in size than males, hawks are considered large, measuring anywhere from 8 to 30 inches long, 18 to 30 if you don’t include the smallest species, the sparrow-hawk. Falcons are sometimes petite to medium in length and measure 8 to 26 inches. Other factors such as the age of the bird and species count, too, but generally, hawks are much larger than falcons.

Falcon vs Hawk: Color

Sure, both birds can have similar colors, so how do you tell the difference? The details of their patterns matter, meaning you’ll want to look at their plumage, wings, and underside. Hawks have greyish and brownish feathers with a pale, striped underside, while falcons are bluish-grey. Also, falcon females have black-barred wings.

There are some other differences based on the species. For example, red-tailed hawks have a brown belly band with white underneath and brown cheeks, and peregrine falcons have a continuous stripe and white cheeks behind malar stripes.

Falcon vs Hawk: Wings

Another huge indicator of difference is the unique features of their wings. Even with a quick glance, you can see the hawk’s wings are short, wide, and rounded, and the falcon’s wings are long, slender, and pointed. Some hawk species, including eagles, have separated feathers on the ends, too.

Falcon vs Hawk: Head shape

At first glance, you might think the hawk and the falcon have very similar head shapes. And they do until you take a closer look. Examine the outline minus the beak and you’ll see the hawk’s head is slender and pointy, whereas the falcon’s head is round and short.

Falcon vs Hawk: Taxonomy

There are 2 groups of birds that are called hawks: Accipitrine and Buteo. Accipitrine includes sharp-shinned hawks, sparrowhawks, goshawks, buzzards, eagles, kites, and harriers.

Buteo includes birds that are called hawks, buzzards, or hawk-buzzards. For falcons, there are 3 to 4 groups and include kestrels, hobbies, peregrines, and the sometimes separate hierofalcons or hawk-falcons.

Falcon vs Hawk: Killing method

Both birds of prey catch their prey with their talons, but they have extremely different killing methods when they’re finishing the hunt. Hawks kill with their strong feet and large, sharp talons for tearing, while falcons have a serration or “tooth” on the side of their beaks to deliver the killing blow.

Falcon vs Hawk: Nests

Hawks and falcons have nests that are in completely opposite locations. Hawks build their nests high up, safe from predators. Falcons build their nests in tree hollows, but they’ll readily take to bird boxes ten to thirty feet off the ground.

Examining the type environment selected can also help determine whether a nest belongs to a falcon or hawk. Hawks normally stick with the tops of very large trees.

Falcons are known for their ability to make homes in trees, but also cliff ledges and human-made structures like ledges of buildings and bridges.

Falcon vs Hawk: Flying style

The flying styles of the hawk versus that of the falcon reflect how their wings are made for different purposes. The hawk flutters slowly while flying in circles or, alternately, briefly flaps and then glides.

A typical falcon can fly up to 60 miles per hour whereas a hawk just under 40 miles. A falcon tears prey apart using it’s beak while hawks attack using its talons or claws. A falcons wings appear long and thing while a hawk’s wings look wider and rounded out.

The falcon’s wings are best for high-speed stopping and diving, so you’ll see rapid, brief but powerful flapping, and speeds of over 100 miles per hour, with the peregrine falcon diving at 180 to 200 miles per hour.

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falcon vs hawk
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About the Author

My name is Rebecca and I've been a Professional Freelancer for almost a decade. I write SEO content and graphic design. When I'm not working, I'm obsessing over cats and pet rats.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Can a Falcon defeat a hawk?

If you’re wondering which one would win in a fight between a falcon and a hawk, that’s an excellent question. Yes, a falcon can defeat a hawk, using its speed and beak to attack. A hawk has a larger size and uses its sharp talons to attack.

Is a hawk more dangerous than a falcon?

They can be equally dangerous.

How much bigger is a hawk than a falcon?

It depends on the species, but a hawk measures (minus the sparrow-hawk species) 18-30 inches long and is generally larger in spite of its shorter wingspan, whereas a falcon measures 8-26 inches long and with a generally longer wingspan.

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