Hawk in front of trees

Differentiating Birds of Prey


Hawks, falcons, and eagles are three of the most skilled birds of prey. While birders are trained to identify these hunters by their plumage, people who have never experienced watching these birds end up mystified.

Telling the difference between a falcon, a hawk, and an eagle is a common problem among many beginners. However, these three have different traits that you can easily make out, even from a distance.

Despite having identical size and physical attributes, hawks, falcons, and eagles have specific traits and behaviors that differentiate themselves from each other. Experienced birders know that identifying a bird of prey takes time and experience.

The different types of raptors have varying plumage, size, and flight patterns, which all factor into their category. These characteristics are what you should be looking out for to identify each type of animal successfully.

1. Size and Shape

Among the three types of prey birds, the eagle has the largest body size, with a broad wingspan and massive feet. Eagles also have a wedge-shaped tail that helps keep them balanced in flight.

Falcons typically have long and pointed wings and a long tail, while hawks have shorter and rounder wings and a long, narrow tail.

2. Flight Behavior

Different birds of prey have varying flight behaviors and patterns. Eagles, for instance, hover over treetops flapping their wings slowly while on the lookout for its next target. They can also be seen perched in trees or on the ground.

Falcons are considered swift flyers that catch their prey off-guard with dives at breathtaking speeds. Peregrine Falcons, one of the falcon species, is regarded as the fastest animal alive. This bird of prey is often found sitting on high perches to wait for the right opportunity to make their assault.

Hawks are medium-sized birds that are mainly found in woodlands. When hunting, this bird dashes from a concealed perch and quickly ambush their prey.

3. Hunting Style

When it comes to hunting prey, Eagles are aggressive and powerful. They have heavy heads and powerful beaks that they use to tear flesh apart. Their massive claws are strong enough to kill their target and ensure it does not escape its grasp.

Falcons generally dive towards their intended target, taking it by surprise. These birds of prey feast on smaller animals located around their territory, such as doves and pigeons. These raptors have an angled beak that is used to snap an unsuspecting animal’s neck quickly.

On the other hand, Hawks are equipped with smooth beaks featuring a simple curve. These animals primarily use their powerful talons to snatch their prey and kill them.

Common types of birds of prey found in Eastern US

Peregrine Falcon: Ohio

Before the 1940s, analysts estimated that there were more than 3,800 nesting sites made by Peregrine Falcons in the United States. However, introducing a toxic pesticide to the environment cut down their numbers to about 300 sites.

In Ohio, officials conducted a restoration project that reintroduced the species to the state to breed and recover their numbers. There were 46 of the species released in the cities of Akron, Cincinnati, and Columbus, which have since expanded the falcon’s range and territory.

Peregrine Falcon landing on tree branch

Peregrine Falcon

American Kestrel: Tennessee

The American Kestrel is the smallest species of falcon in North America. It sports various colors and has spread widely across the nation. This type of falcon is more commonly observed than other varieties due to its fondness for creating its nest on agricultural lands and residential areas.

Red-shouldered Hawk: Georgia

A year-long resident in Georgia, the Red-shouldered Hawk is a common resident and has an unusual courtship ritual. Two birds would come together and fly while occasionally rolling over on their backs. They are commonly seen soaring the skies while upside down.

Red-tailed Hawk: Florida

Red-tailed Hawks are typically seen making their nests along fields and atop telephone poles and fenceposts in Florida. This hawk species sports a signature bright red tail, which even first-time birders would be able to identify in flight.

Bald Eagle: Alabama

While Bald Eagles are common in the United States, birdwatchers have only seen an average of 100 to 150 birds in Alabama in recent years. This large, majestic bird of prey makes its nest along rivers and large bodies of water.

Bald Eagles stick with one mate for their entire lives and divide responsibilities with each other. Enormous nests are usually found on the crown of massive trees near water bodies.

Golden Eagle: Appalachian Mountains

Sporting a beautiful golden hue, the Golden Eagle are large birds of prey that could have a wingspan of up to seven feet. This species of raptor is found in Alabama in mid- to late November before migrating elsewhere.

Like Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles make their nests on top of large trees and are called aeries. These birds of prey begin laying eggs in February or March inside nests of lower attitude than usual.

Golden eagle sitting

Golden Eagle


You can find more information on birds of prey here.