Falcons versus Hawks

Ever wondered what the difference is between a hawk and a falcon? Did you know that not all hawks are hawks and some falcons are considered to be hawks. In this post, we look at what exactly a hawk and a falcon is, what the differences and maybe which is best.

What is a hawk?

Photo by pixabay

The family of Accipitridae are Hawks, Kites, Eagles and Allies. According to the American Birding Association, within this family are 20 species of bird with the name ‘hawk’. This includes the Chinese Sparrowhawk, Northern Goshawk and 17 other hawks.

However, there are only actually 3 species of true hawk. They are:

  • Northern Goshawk
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk

The other raptors named ‘hawk’ are actually buteo. In other countries they would be referred to as buzzards. They generally are of stouter bodies and broader wings than the slimmer looking true hawks.

For our purposes, and because it is how we view these birds in the United States, we are including all the true hawks and named hawks in our investigation.

What is a falcon?

Photo by Imogen Warren

We have a similar naming issue with the falcons. The falconidae family contain falcons and caracara. Birds with the word falcon in their name number 7 out of a total 12 species in the group. However, we discount the vagrants and must include the non-falcon named birds, which are the Merlin and the American Kestrel. We still net out at 7 species and these are:

  • American Kestrel
  • Merlin
  • Bat Falcon
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Prairie Falcon
  • Gyrfalcon
  • Aplomado Falcon

Comparing Falcons and Hawks

There are lots of generalizations that are often made when comparing hawks and falcons. For instance, if you google the difference between them, the number one fact is that hawks are much larger than falcons.

If you compare the American Kestrel with the Red-tailed Hawk, then this is certainly true. The American Kestrel is about the size of a Mourning Dove, whereas the Red-tailed Hawk is half the size of a Bald Eagle. However, if we compare the Peregrine Falcon to the Red-shouldered Hawk, they are roughly the same size. So, we need to be a bit more specific.

Rankings and Comparisons

The following tables rank both falcons and hawks by their wingspan in inches and weight in ounces.

Notes about the tables – for ease of comparison

  • There are some differences between the sexes, notably that females are sometimes larger than the males. I have just taken the lowest and highest amounts.
  • I have included all the falcons but only the more commonly seen hawks in the U.S.
  • I have used the lowest amount in the rankings.
Photo by Nigel


Sharp-shinned Hawk16.9-22.1American Kestrel20.1-24.0
Cooper’s Hawk24.4-35.4Bat Falcon20.0-26.0
Red-shouldered Hawk37.0-43.7Merlin20.9-26.8
Northern Goshawk40.5-46.1Aplomado Falcon35.0
Harris’s Hawk40.5-46.9Prairie Falcon35.4-44.5
Red-tailed Hawk44.9-52.4 Peregrine Falcon39.4-43.3
Ferruginous Hawk52.4-55.9Gyrfalcon48.4


It is quite startling to see these figures like this. Some of the most noticeable comparisons are:

  • The largest falcon (Gyrfalcon) is almost as big as the largest hawk (Ferruginous Hawk).
  • The 4 largest falcons are not that much smaller than the 5 largest hawks.
  • The smallest hawk (Sharp-shinned Hawk) is smaller than the smallest falcon (American Kestrel).
  • The 3 smallest falcons are comparable with the 2 smallest hawks.
Photo by Ólafur Larsenderivative


Sharp-shinned Hawk3.1-7.7American Kestrel2.8-5.8
Cooper’s Hawk7.8-24.0Bat Falcon3.8-8.5
Red-shouldered Hawk17.1-27.3Merlin5.6-8.5
Harris’s Hawk18.2-31.0Aplomado Falcon7.3-17.6 
Northern Goshawk22.3-48.1Prairie Falcon14.8-38.8 
Red-tailed Hawk24.3-51.5Peregrine Falcon18.7-56.4
Ferruginous Hawk34.5-73.2Gyrfalcon38.8-63.5


There are again some interesting comparisons we can see here.

  • The smallest hawk (Sharp-shinned Hawk) is comparable with the smallest falcon (American Kestrel).
  • The largest falcon (Gyrfalcon) is heavier than the largest hawk (Ferruginous Hawk).
  • The heaviest 2 falcons weigh more than the 4 lightest hawks.

So, we can clearly see that it is not really accurate to say that falcons are smaller and lighter than hawks. We need to be more specific.

The Peregrine Falcon vs the Northern Goshawk

In order to look more closely at the differences between hawks and falcons, I have chose one of each that are reasonably similar in wingspan and length.

Peregrine Falcon

  • The Peregrine Falcon is a striking raptor that is easily identified in the field with its dark gray/blue back and face. The breast is streaky.
  • It is one of the most widespread birds of prey and is found throughout the world.
  • This is an adaptable falcon and thrives in a wide range of habitats.
  • The method of hunting is spectacular. The falcon dives and can reach over 200 miles per hour, making it the fastest animal on earth. It hunts birds and takes them in flight.
  • It has a wide migration pattern.

Northern Goshawk

  • The Northern Goshawk is another impressive raptor with a dark back and streaky front. Again, the head and face are strongly marked, this time with fierce pale brows.
  • It is found across central and northern parts of the U.S. and is common in Europe but less so in Asia.
  • This large goshawk inhabits dense forests and this can make it difficult to see.
  • Another aerial diver, the Northern Goshawk hunts birds as well as medium sized mammals.
  • While, the Northern Goshawk does not have a migration pattern as such, there are areas where it does not breed.


We have seen here how similar the Northern Goshawk is to the Peregrine Falcon. Our other comparisons demonstrate how it is not really helpful to make generalizations about hawks versus falcons. It also doesn’t help that the families and the bird names are quite muddled. For instance, a Merlin is a falcon but a Red-shouldered Hawk is not really a hawk.

It might be better to consider these birds as raptors or birds of prey and then either compare one species against another or just look at the birds on their own merits.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about hawks and falcons. I certainly learned a few things!

Photo by The Lilac Breasted Roller


Do falcons and hawks coexist?

Sure, they have to. Birds of prey often have wide territories so they will, of course, overlap. In addition, the smaller raptors are hunted by the larger ones so they have to be in the same range.

What eats falcons or hawks?

Generally and regardless of whether the bird is a falcon or hawk, smaller birds get hunted by bigger birds. This is true of raptors as well. While the largest falcon and hawk may seem like they are apex predators, they will also be hunted. The Great Horned Owl will take hawks and falcons.

What is the biggest hawk and falcon in the world?

They are both on our list and so both found in the U.S. The biggest hawk in the world is the Ferruginous Hawk and the largest falcon is the Gyrfalcon.

Photo by Delaney-van-Vranken
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