What's the Difference Between Hawks and Falcons?

Speed and size are notable differences, but you can also tell the two apart by their beaks and wings.

Peregrine falcon flying with lake in background
Peregrine falcon in flight.

Tze-hsin Woo / Getty Images

When it comes to birds of prey, it can be virtually impossible to identify what's circling overhead if all you can discern about the animal is that it's big. Birdwatchers risk misidentifying less-common raptors as the red-tailed hawk, the most populous bird of prey in the U.S. But one would be disappointed not to realize what they're actually looking at is the fastest animal on Earth, the peregrine falcon.

Hawks and falcons are equally fascinating but frequently confused because of their similar silhouettes and shared range. There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences, however, such as the shape of their outstretched wings, body size, flying style, and beak shape. Here, find out how to tell a hawk from a falcon so you can distinguish America's most common raptor from the world's speediest.

Key Differences

  • Range: Hawks and falcons are common throughout the contiguous U.S., but peregrine falcons live only along the coast, in the mountains, and in river valleys outside of breeding and migration periods.
  • Size: Hawks are generally longer than falcons from bill to tail, sometimes by more than 10 inches.
  • Wings: A hawk's wings are wider and more rounded at the tips.
  • Speed: Peregrine falcons are the fastest animals on the planet, able to dive at 200 mph.

Hawk and Falcon Classification

Juvenile red-shouldered hawk hunting with talons
The red-shouldered hawk is one of more than a dozen hawk species found in the U.S.

Carlos Carreno / Getty Images

There are more than 200 hawk species spread across several genera, all belonging to the order Accipitriformes and family Accipitridae, which describes diurnal predator birds of varying sizes with strongly hooked bills, broad wings, and sharp talons. This family also contains eagles, kites, and buzzards. There are about 50 species of "true" hawks, all belonging to the subfamily Accipitrinae and split into four genera: Accipiter, Erythrotriorchis, Megatriorchis, and Microspizias.

Falcons, on the contrary, all belong to one genus: Falco. The genus is under the order Falconiformes, family Falconidae, and subfamily Falconinae. There are about 40 species globally.

Though they fall into completely different families—different orders, even—falcons are often categorized as hawks likely because of a nickname the peregrine falcon has long held in North America, the "duck hawk."

Characteristics of Hawks vs. Falcons

In much of their range, hawks and falcons share the same airspace. Birders will need to tune into the small details that set them apart in order to know which type of bird they're seeing.

Size

Ferruginous hawk perches on branch in predatory stance
The Ferruginous hawk is North America's largest hawk species.

Dennis Holcomb Photography / Getty Images

One of the biggest, most obvious distinctions between hawks and falcons is size. The average adult red-tailed hawk is about 20 inches long (from bill to tail), slightly shorter than North America's largest, the Ferruginous hawk, which is about 25 inches long. The American kestrel, for reference, is only about 10 inches long and the peregrine falcon 17 inches on average.

Wings

Overhead view of falcon flying
Falcons have long, slender wings that create clean lines while outstretched and are often pointed at the tips.

Eduardo Barrento / Getty Images

Falcons are sometimes called "longwings," and even though their wingspans don't necessarily exceed that of a hawk's—at least in the case of the peregrine falcon (max 43 inches) or American kestrel (24 inches) compared to the red-tailed hawk (52 inches)—the slenderness of falcon wings creates the illusion of length. Adapted for incredible speed, falcon wings also come to a point at the ends whereas hawks' are more rounded and sometimes feature discernible feathers that look like fingers.

In terms of flight patterns, falcons beat their long and slender wings rapidly, breaking only briefly to glide. Hawks flap their wings slowly, gliding for longer periods and more often. Falcons are the superior flying birds, able to reach speeds of 200 mph.

Head and Beak Shape

Close-up of peregrine falcon profile and its overhanging "tooth"
Falcons have a notch or "tooth" at the tip of their beaks.

Jennifer Menden / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you see one of these birds of prey perched, notice the shape of the head: A falcon's is short and rounded whereas a hawk's is pointier. Hawks do not have a notch at the tips of their beaks—a "tooth" that falcons use to kill their prey. Instead, they have beaks that curve evenly; they use their talons, not their beaks, to kill prey.

Range

One reason hawks and falcons are so often confused is because they share much of their range across the U.S. and globally. Despite the peregrine falcon being among the world's most common birds of prey, hawks—the red-tailed hawk, especially—are more common and widespread throughout the States. The U.S. is home to six falcon species and up to 25 hawk species (estimates vary).

The ubiquitous red-tailed hawk resides permanently in every state except Montana, North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii (it does, however, move north into these territories during the summer). The most common falcon in the U.S. is not the peregrine falcon but the American kestrel, residing permanently in every state except much of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Alaska, and Hawaii (again, though, it can be found in these states during summer). Peregrine falcons, the most famous and well-known of their genus, live permanently only around the U.S. coastlines, in mountain ranges, and along river valleys.

Conservation Status

Mauritius kestrel perched on a branch with leaves in background
There are thought to be only 200 or fewer Mauritius kestrels remaining in the wild.

neil bowman / Getty Images

Starting in the mid-1900s birds of prey all over the world were slowly poisoned by a bioaccumulation of DDT, an insecticide farmers used on pests eventually eaten by raptors. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, after which birds of prey including hawks and falcons slowly recovered. Today, they're still being poisoned by lead (used in sinkers for fishing), but their biggest problems are climate change and habitat loss.

Of the 51 "true" hawks listed by the IUCN, seven are near threatened with extinction, five are vulnerable, and two—the red goshawk and Gundlach's hawk—are endangered. Of the 34 falcons listed, three are considered near threatened, five vulnerable, and two endangered—the Mauritius kestrel and saker falcon.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Are falcons hawks?

    Although the common peregrine falcon has historically been called a "duck hawk" in North America, falcons come from a different taxonomic order than hawks.

  • What's the easiest way to tell a hawk from a falcon?

    Look at the wings: Falcons have long, slender wings that appear clean at the edges and pointed at the tips whereas hawks have short, broad wings that are rounded at the ends and might have discernible "fingerlike" feathers.

  • Which is bigger, a falcon or a hawk?

    While size varies by species, hawks are almost always bigger than falcons in terms of both bill-to-tail length and wingspan.

View Article Sources
  1. "Red-tailed Hawk Identification." Cornell University.

  2. "Ferruginous Hawk Identification." Cornell University.

  3. "American Kestrel Identification." Cornell University.

  4. "Peregrine Falcon Identification." Cornell University.

  5. "Fastest bird (diving)." Guinness World Records.

  6. "The Case of DDT: Revisiting the Impairment." United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  7. "Accipiter — Genus." IUCN Red List.

  8. "Erythrotriorchis — Genus." IUCN Red List.

  9. "Megatriorchis — Genus." IUCN Red List.

  10. "Falconidae - Family." IUCN Red List.