Hawk vs. Eagle: What’s the Difference?

Hawk vs eagle

Hawks and eagles are two of the most awe-inspiring birds of prey, each with its own set of unique traits and abilities. While they might seem similar at first glance, there are quite a few differences that set them apart.

Hawks are generally smaller, with mottled brown feathers and darker beaks, while eagles have uniform dark feathers and yellow or lighter beaks. Their calls also differ; hawks are known for their sharp, piercing calls, whereas eagles emit high-pitched whistles.

In this article, we’ll explore further the fascinating distinctions between these amazing birds. From their habitats to their behavior and lifespan, we’ll uncover what makes hawks and eagles truly unique.

Summary of Hawk vs. Eagle

Hawk on white backgroundBald eagle isolated on white background
Belong to the Accipitridae family, with numerous genera (e.g., Buteo, Accipiter)
Also belong to the Accipitridae family, primarily the genera Aquila and Haliaeetus
Found in diverse habitats, including forests, mountains, plains, and tropical rainforests
Prefer large, open spaces such as plains, mountains, and coastal regions
12–26 in (30.5–66 cm)
15–36 in (38–91.5 cm)
1–4 lbs (0.4–1.8 kg)
8–15 lbs (3.6–6.8 kg)
15–58 in (38–147 cm)
71–92 in (180–234 cm)
Smaller and more slender with rounded wings and a shorter, darker beak
Larger and bulkier with broader and straighter wings and a thick, hooked beak that is typically yellow or lighter in color.
Range from gray and brown to black and white, often with patterns like spots or stripes
Vary by species, from dark brown to lighter colors, often with less pronounced markings compared to hawks
Grip strength up to 200 psi
Grip strength over 400 psi
Flight Speed:
Up to 120 mph
Flight Speed:
Up to 200 mph
Diet & Prey:
Insects, small mammals, birds,  reptiles, and carrion
Diet & Prey:
Fish, mammals, reptiles, and other birds
Territorial but more social compared to eagles, can sometimes be seen hunting in groups or pairs
Also territorial and known for their solitary nature, especially when hunting
Loud screeching sounds
High-pitched whistles and piping sounds
12–20 years
20–30 years
Monogamous, start breeding at about 1–3 years old
Monogamous, start breeding later at around 4-9 years old

Key Differences Between Hawks and Eagles

Even though hawks and eagles share some similarities, they each have unique traits and behaviors that make them different. Let’s take a closer look at these differences.

1. Eagle and Hawk Classification

Bald eagle landing from the sky
Bald eagle landing from the sky

Hawks and eagles belong to the same family, known as Accipitridae, a large group that includes other birds of prey like kites, harriers, and vultures.

However, despite being relatives, hawks and eagles are classified into different groups called genera. It’s a way for scientists to categorize and group species with similar traits.

Hawks belong to various genera, with Buteo being one of the most common for the broad-winged hawks found in North America, such as Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks.

Another genus, Accipiter, includes sharper-winged hawks such as Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Eagles are found in different genera as well. One of the most well-known is Aquila for true eagles, which includes species like Golden Eagles, Tawny Eagles, and Steppe Eagles.

There’s also another genus called Haliaeetus, which has sea eagles and bald eagles.

2. Habitat and Distribution

Beautiful Ferruginous hawk getting ready to fly
Beautiful Ferruginous hawk getting ready to fly

Hawks are present on every continent except Antarctica, showcasing their incredible ability to live in a variety of climates.

From dense forests and mountainous regions to open fields and desert landscapes, hawks have made almost every type of environment their home.

In contrast, eagles have a preference for habitats that offer open spaces and an abundance of prey. That’s why many of them are often found near bodies of water like lakes, rivers, and coastal regions, where they can catch plenty of fish.

Eagles also need large territories for hunting and nesting, so they usually pick places far from people, like remote forests, high mountains, and rugged coastlines.

They are also found all around the world, but they tend to stick to certain areas, depending on the species.

For instance, bald eagles are mostly seen in North America, enjoying a variety of landscapes, whereas African fish eagles are at home in Sub-Saharan Africa.

3. Physical Characteristics

American bald eagle flying in wilderness
American bald eagle flying in the wilderness

While both belong to the raptor family, hawks and eagles exhibit distinct physical traits that differentiate them.

Hawks are characterized by their shorter and more rounded wings, which contrast with the longer and wider wings of eagles. Interestingly, some hawks also feature long tails paired with their relatively short wings.

Another notable difference lies in their legs; most hawks have bare legs, while eagles typically have legs feathered down to their toes.

Additionally, most hawks have dark-colored beaks, in contrast to the yellow or light-colored beaks of eagles.

Size, Weight and Wingspan

Compared to eagles, hawks are generally smaller and lighter. On average, a hawk’s wingspan ranges from about 15 to 58 inches.

Their weight can vary, but many species typically weigh between 1 and 4 pounds, with a body length ranging from 12 to 26 inches.

Eagles, in contrast, are larger and have a more imposing presence. An eagle’s wingspan typically measures around 71 to 92 inches.

On average, eagles weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, with a body length that can vary from 15 to 36 inches.

This size and weight advantage enable eagles to hunt larger prey and be considered among the top predators in their habitats.

Feather Patterns and Coloration

Hawks exhibit a wide range of colors and patterns across different species. Many hawks have a mix of brown, gray, and white feathers, with variations that can include spots, stripes, or bars.

Moreover, certain species of hawks, especially those in the genus Buteo, exhibit polymorphism, wherein individuals may display light or dark color morphs.

This variability is often linked to their specific habitat, with different color morphs potentially offering advantages in particular environments.

On the flip side, eagles usually have a more consistent color scheme compared to hawks. Adult bald eagles, for instance, have distinct white heads and tails against dark brown bodies and wings.

While eagles do not exhibit the same level of polymorphism as hawks, species like the golden eagle may still have a range of brown, gold, and sometimes lighter shades in their feathers.

Beak and Talon Structure

Hawks have sharply curved beaks and talons similar to eagles’, but theirs are shorter and specialized for capturing smaller prey.

Meanwhile, eagles have larger and broader beaks with a unique feature: a noticeable recurved shape to the sharpened edge of the upper beak.

This recurved edge, curving upward just before the hook, increases the sharpened surface area, which makes it more efficient for cutting through prey.

Furthermore, eagle talons are not only larger but also wider than those of hawks, providing a more powerful grip. These adaptations are particularly useful for eagles, as they often tackle larger prey.

4. Strength

A red tailed hawk eating a squirrel on the ground
A red-tailed hawk eating a squirrel on the ground

Despite being smaller than eagles, hawks are formidable hunters and possess considerable strength. Their powerful talons and flying abilities enable them to carry prey weighing around 4 pounds.

The red-tailed hawk, one of the more robust hawk species, showcases this strength with a grip pressure of about 200 psi. This powerful grip enables them to catch and hold onto their prey efficiently.

In contrast, eagles are larger and possess even more muscular legs and talons, which enable them to exert an impressive grip strength of up to 400 psi.

This incredible gripping power allows eagles to capture and carry sizable prey over long distances. They can effortlessly carry prey weighing up to 20 pounds, thanks in part to their ability to exert such force.

5. Flight and Movement

Adult white tailed eagle in flight
Adult white-tailed eagle in flight

Hawks are renowned for their speed and agility in the air. They can reach impressive speeds, especially when diving after prey. On average, hawks can fly at speeds between 20 and 40 miles per hour during normal flight.

However, when diving to catch prey, they can accelerate dramatically, reaching speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. This amazing speed, coupled with their agility, allows hawks to navigate through trees and other obstacles effortlessly.

On the other hand, eagles are known for their powerful and sustained flight. While their average flight speed of around 28 to 32 miles per hour during normal flight may not seem as fast as that of some hawks, they can reach much higher speeds when diving.

Golden eagles, for instance, have been documented reaching speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour when diving to catch prey.

6. Diet and Hunting Techniques

Harriss hawk in training program for hunting
Harris’s hawk in training program for hunting

Hawks have a varied diet that primarily includes rodents, birds, reptiles, insects, and sometimes carrion. They use a variety of hunting methods suited to their diet.

Many hawks use a strategy known as perch hunting, where they sit quietly and watch for prey from a high vantage point. Once they spot their target, they swoop down with precision and speed to capture it.

Another common technique is soaring, where hawks glide high in the sky and use their keen eyesight to spot prey from above before diving down to catch it.

Meanwhile, eagles prefer larger prey like fish, small mammals, birds, and reptiles. One of the most iconic hunting techniques is that of the bald eagle, which often hunts fish by swooping down over water and snatching them.

I’ve also seen eagles soar or perch just like hawks, but the difference in their size and strength is stark. On one occasion, I witnessed an eagle swoop down with precision and captured a rabbit with ease.

I later learned that eagles are such amazing hunters that they can even take down prey as big as deer.

If you want to see these impressive hunting skills in action, check out the video below:

Golden eagle vs Roe deer vs Fox by Fada HD/4K

7. Behavior and Sounds

Golden eagle about to land on a tree stump
Golden eagle about to land on a tree stump

Hawks are known for their sharp, piercing calls, which serve to mark territory, signal distress, attract mates, and establish dominance.

The red-tailed hawk, for example, emits a distinctive “kee-eeeee-arr” scream while soaring and a shrill “chwirk” during courtship.

In terms of behavior, hawks are territorial but more social than eagles. Some species, like the Swainson’s hawk, can even be seen migrating in large groups of up to thousands.

Conversely, eagles produce high-pitched whistles or chirps, which is a far cry from the fierce screech that hawks produce.

I’ll never forget the time I was walking through the woods and heard the soft, gull-like chirping of a bald eagle. It was so quiet and gentle compared to the loud calls of hawks I had heard before.

Hearing that eagle was a real surprise, showing me just how different these birds can sound.

As for behavior, eagles are known to be highly territorial, even more so than hawks. They typically lead solitary lives outside of the pair bonding during nesting season, preferring to hunt and migrate alone.

Fun Fact: Did you know that the iconic sound associated with eagles in many movies and TV shows is often the call of a red-tailed hawk?

Filmmakers often use the distinctive screech of red-tailed hawks to depict the majestic sound of eagles on screen, even though the two birds have different calls in real life.

8. Lifespan

A red tailed hawk perched in a tree
A red-tailed hawk perched in a tree

On average, hawks have a lifespan ranging from 12 to 20 years in the wild, with larger hawks generally living longer than smaller ones. In captivity, however, these birds can live even longer, with some living up to 25 years.

Meanwhile, eagles tend to have longer lifespans. The lifespan of an eagle can vary widely among species, but some, like the Bald Eagle, can live up to 20 to 30 years in the wild.

And just like hawks, eagles can live even longer in captivity, with some individuals reaching up to 50 years.

9. Breeding and Reproduction

Harpy eagle ready to eat its prey
Harpy eagle ready to eat its prey

Hawks typically start breeding when they are about 1 to 2 years old for smaller species and 2 to 3 years for larger ones. They’re known for their monogamous nature, often mating with the same partner for many years or even for life.

The number of eggs laid can vary, but it’s common for hawks to lay between 1 and 5 eggs, which are then incubated by both parents.

On the other hand, eagles tend to start breeding at an older age, usually between 4 and 9 years. This later start is partly due to their larger size and longer lifespan.

Eagles are also predominantly monogamous and may remain with their partner for life, sharing responsibilities for nest building, incubation, and feeding of the young.

These birds typically lay 1 to 3 eggs per breeding season, with both parents taking turns incubating them.

Fun Fact: Bald Eagles hold the record for building the largest nests among all birds. The largest known eagle nest was found in Florida. It measured a whopping 9 feet across, 20 feet deep, and weighed over 2 tons!

How to Tell Them Apart

To distinguish hawks from eagles, pay attention to their size, beaks, feathers, and sounds. Hawks are generally smaller with more rounded wings, while eagles are larger with broader wings.

When it comes to their beaks, hawks are not only smaller but also tend to be darker in color compared to the often yellow or lighter-colored beaks of eagles.

In terms of feather coloration, hawks display a mix of lighter and darker brown feathers, often barred with shades of brown and white, which creates a mottled appearance that becomes more visible in flight.

Meanwhile, eagles have a more uniform dark brown body and wings, with the striking contrast of their white head and tail.

Furthermore, hawks typically make loud, piercing calls, while eagles typically emit high-pitched whistles or chirps. These sounds can help you identify them, especially from a distance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Red tailed hawk flying close up

Are Eagles and Hawks Related?

Yes, eagles and hawks are related. They both belong to the family Accipitridae. Their similarities in physical traits and behaviors highlight this relationship, making them distant cousins in the bird world.

Hawk vs. Eagle Who Would Win?

If a hawk and an eagle were to face off, the eagle would probably win. Eagles are larger and stronger than hawks, with tougher talons and beaks that can handle bigger prey.

This size and strength advantage gives eagles the upper hand in a fight between the two.

Can a Hawk See Better Than an Eagle?

Eagles are known to have better vision than hawks. While both birds have incredible eyesight, eagles edge out with their ability to see further and with more clarity.

Bald eagles, in particular, are known for their exceptional long-distance vision, which is believed to be 4 to 8 times sharper than that of humans.

Now that we’ve looked at the differences between hawks and eagles, which bird captures your interest the most? Share your thoughts or any questions you may have in the comments below!

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