How Much Weight Can a Hawk Carry?

Hawk flying with caught fish

YinYang / Getty Images

Hawks and other raptors are impressive predators. Their eyesight can be four to eight times better than ours, and many species are adapted for fast, quiet flight to help them ambush prey. Along with their awe-inspiring abilities, birds of prey play key ecological roles in many different ecosystems.

Yet when marveling at the hunting prowess of these aerial carnivores, a natural question may occur to some nervous parents and pet owners: Just how much weight could that bird carry? Will they swoop down to grab a small dog, cat, or even a human child?

This article answers these questions and more around how much weight a hawk can carry.

Hawks and Pets

red-tailed hawk catching a rabbit
The red-tailed hawk, one of the most common hawk species across North America, tends to hunt small, lightweight prey like rabbits, rodents and snakes. Shanthanu Bhardwaj / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

While the risk can't be ruled out for some smaller pets, it's safe to say that a hawk picking up your pup or cat is an unlikely scenario.

Hawks and owls can't fly away with prey that outweigh them. And given the light weight of even big raptors like red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls—which average about 2 and 3 pounds, respectively—they are unable to kidnap most adult dogs and cats.

Red-tailed hawks mainly eat small mammals like rodents and rabbits, plus birds and snakes, and aren't considered a threat to most pets. That said, some larger red-tailed hawks may be able to carry prey weighing 5 pounds, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This could include not just puppies and kittens, but also some adult cats and dogs from small breeds.

A few hawks in the U.S. are colloquially known as "chickenhawks," a reference to their supposed habit of killing poultry on the ground à la great horned owls. This includes Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks, which may occasionally attack poultry, as well as red-tailed hawks, which are less likely to earn the nickname.

In any case, "chickenhawk" is a misleading term for all of these species, according to Beauty of Birds, since chickens do not make a up a significant part of their diet.

Did You Know?

Many other birds of prey, such as falcons and kestrels, are even less likely to threaten pets. That could be due to their small size or their specialized diets. An osprey, for example, is a big raptor that probably could steal a small dog, but it would rather catch fish, which make up most of its diet.

Hawks and Humans

It may be possible for some eagles to lift small children, but there is scant evidence of this actually happening.

Eagles and other raptors do sometimes injure people, although these rare encounters are likely driven by fear more than hunger. Some wild birds may swoop or even attack people if they feel threatened, perhaps because we invaded their territory or put them in a car.

Other cases tend to involve captive birds in unnatural settings, like a wedge-tailed eagle that briefly attacked a boy at an Australian wildlife park in 2016. The boy, who sustained minor injuries, was reportedly playing with his jacket's zipper, making a noise that may have irritated the eagle. As one wildlife guide told Australia's ABC News, it would be "totally impossible" for the eagle to fly off with the boy.

Safety Tips

Hawk on fence staring into camera

Pop Andreea / 500px / Getty Images

While most pets and kids are probably safe from birds of prey, it still might be wise to take a few precautions.

One of the most effective strategies is to supervise your pets when they're outdoors, which improves their safety as well as that of your neighbors and local wildlife. The best practices vary by the pet and the context, though, since an adult retriever likely needs less protection in a fenced-in yard than a chihuahua or a small puppy.

Your pet may be too big for raptors to carry away, but many experts still suggest erring on the side of caution. Hawks Aloft, a New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on raptor conservation, recommends supervising the outdoor activities of any animal weighing less than 15 pounds.

Even if a small dog is accompanied by a larger dog, or wearing a kevlar or reflective vest, "your pet is still fair game for predators like hawks, owls and coyotes," the group warns, also recommending that cats should stay indoors at all times.

You can also attempt to proactively thwart raptors using reflective tape, owl decoys, or pie pans hung from trees. However, these tactics are no substitute for human supervision.

Keep in mind that the presence of wild raptors suggests you live in a healthy ecosystem, and if you can bear to share space with them, there's a good chance they'll repay you for your tolerance. Instead of hunting pets, for example, many birds of prey are far more likely to hunt pests like rats—maybe even more effectively than a pet cat.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What do hawks eat?

    Hawks are carnivores that eat mostly rodents. They'll also eat frogs, insects, snakes, lizards, and small birds.

  • Do hawks eat pets?

    Being meat eaters, hawks can and sometimes do prey on pets. Given their carrying capacity, small pets under about five pounds are the only ones at risk. If you have a puppy or small adult dog, keep it under careful supervision while outside.

  • Why are hawks hanging around your house?

    One of the main reasons a hawk will frequent your house is if there's a good food supply for it, including rodents and other birds. This is especially the case if you have a bird bath or feeder. If you have a hawk around, it will probably seek shelter in a big tree—the perfect vantage point for hunting.

  • How can you keep hawks away from your house?

    Hawks are beneficial animals to have around, as they keep snakes and rodents at bay. But if you have small pets or birds that hang out in your yard, you might want to deter hawks with a scarecrow or owl decoy. Cover your bird feeders and any chicken enclosures. Although chickens tend to attract hawks, a rooster could repel them.