Hawk Identification – Everything you need to know

Hawk identification can be a thrilling yet challenging pursuit. Seeing these breathtaking raptors in their natural environment is an electrifying experience. But, distinguishing one species from another can be a challenge. Hawks don’t exactly pose for a picture-perfect ID shot. They’re always on the move – soaring high or darting through dense foliage.

Though hawks might be challenging to identify, a friendly tip from other birders may help you identify hawks, and birds in general, faster. There are some great birdwatching tools on the app market to assist you, like the free Birda app. On Birda, you can log any bird you can’t identify and friendly birders from the global community will quickly suggest which bird you might have seen and why; bringing a helpful human element to up your hawk ID skills. Find out more about the Birda app.

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The good news is that with some expert tips and keen observation skills, you’ll soon become adept at identifying different hawk species. It boils down to knowing the distinguishing characteristics that should be noted while learning how to identify hawks.

Hawk Identification: Key Features to Look For

Wing Shape

Observing a hawk in flight is an exhilarating experience, and the shape of its wings can be a definitive clue to its identity. Accipiters, for example, typically possess wings that are either rounded or slightly pointed for aerodynamics. Buteos, on the other hand, boast wings that are notably straight and broad for soaring on thermals. The distinction in wing structure often reflects their hunting style and habitat preference.

Tail Shape and Length

While wings are pivotal, don’t forget to cast an eye on the tail! The tail serves as another remarkable identifier for these majestic birds as the length and width differentiates the hunting patterns. For instance, Buteos often have a relatively short and stout tail is great for steering whilst soaring. Contrastingly, Accipiters flaunt a longer and more rounded tail to make quick movements through trees. By examining both wing and tail can better narrow down your hawk identification.

A close-up of a Sharp-shinned Hawk's tail shape and length for identification purposes

Wing Feathers

Another feature to delve into is the presence or absence of fringed feathers on the wingtips. If you’re questioning whether you’re observing a falcon, this feature can be your guide. Unlike falcons, eagles, buteos, and accipiters have distinct fringed feathers, giving their wings an appearance reminiscent of a hand.

Bird Shape in Flight

Differentiating between accipiters can sometimes be a task. However, a unique silhouette can help distinguish them. Cooper’s hawk, for instance, assumes the form of a “flying cross” characterised by a pronounced head and a rounded tail.

In contrast, the Sharp-shinned hawk often appears like a “flying capital T”, distinguished by its smaller head and more streamlined form.

Rump Patch

The Northern Harrier is a raptor that stands out, especially with its iconic white rump patch. When in the field, this white patch is conspicuous enough to be spotted even from a distance as the bird gracefully soars overhead. This signature trait offers birdwatchers a swift means to identify the Northern Harrier amidst other raptors.

By mastering these identification tips, bird enthusiasts can better appreciate and recognise the diverse hawk species that grace the skies of the USA. Whether you’re a seasoned birder or a budding enthusiast, understanding these nuances ensures a more enriching birdwatching experience.

Differentiating Hawks from Other Birds of Prey

Learning to distinguish hawks from other birds of prey will help ID birds faster but what can really help narrow down your search further is the free Birda app. Find out what hawks might be seen in your area using Birda’s Species Guide or the app’s Locations feature

Ever found yourself gazing up at the sky, trying to discern if that majestic bird is a hawk or perhaps an eagle? Or have you pondered upon the intricate flight patterns, wondering about the nuances that set hawks apart from falcons? Use the graph below for a hawk silhouette aid and let’s journey further to uncover the unique characteristics of hawks, eagles, falcons, and ospreys.

Hawk ID Graph showing silhouettes and identification tips for identifying Eagles, Buteos, Accipiters and Falcons. Excellent for quick hawk identification help.

Falcons: The Aero-dynamic Speedsters

What makes falcons stand out in the avian crowd? Their reputation as some of the fastest birds in the U.S. Speed is undoubtedly a distinguishing factor when you’re in a hawk vs. falcon debate. Falcons’ fringed feathers enable them to cut through the air with unparalleled precision, almost akin to a hot blade slicing through butter. On the other side of the spectrum, hawks possess smoother wing edges, lending them a flight that’s a poetic dance of grace.

A Falcon flying in mid-air, with the wing shape visible, excellent for understanding a Falcon's identification.

Common North American Falcons:

Eagles: Where Wingspan Rules

Shifting our focus to Eagles, one cannot overlook the sheer magnitude of their presence. What sets Eagles distinctly apart from hawks? It’s the impressive wingspan. Eagles can flaunt wings that span a staggering 7 feet or even more, dwarfing the measurements of a typical hawk. So, when you witness a colossal raptor casting a shadow with its expansive wings, you’re most likely in the grand company of an eagle.

An Eagle approaching a rock outcrop in order to land, wing shape clearly visible and large

Common North American Eagles:

Ospreys: Masters of Aquatic Hunting

Ospreys, birds that often find themselves misidentified as hawks due to similar dimensions and colour schemes, have a unique diet. These birds are connoisseurs of live fish exclusively. Unlike the diverse diet of hawks, which ranges from small mammals to reptiles and even insects, ospreys have a singular focus. Their evolution has blessed them with unique traits like reversible outer toes for a firmer grip on elusive fish and an advanced vision adept at spotting underwater movement.

An Osprey identified as diving into the water with it's talons ready to strike prey

Accipiters and Buteos: Frequent Flyers in Your Backyard

Venturing into the heart of the U.S, many Accipiters and Buteos grace our skies and landscapes. These raptors are not just prevalent; they’re active participants in our local ecosystems. With keen eyes and agile wings, they often swoop into our backyards, on the prowl for a hearty meal, making them a delightful sight for bird enthusiasts.

An red-tailed hawk flying high in the sky as viewed from below, essential for understanding Hawk identification.

Common North American Buteos:

And common Accipiters:

Understanding Hawks and Falcons: A Closer Look at Key Differences

When embarking on the exciting journey of birdwatching in the US, one might frequently come across both hawks and falcons, given their widespread presence. However, discerning between these two raptors can sometimes be challenging due to their overlapping characteristics.

One of the best ways to get yourself familiar with bird ID is to challenge yourself to get outside. The Birda App has many challenges to get involved with and you could win some fantastic prizes! Find out a bit more about Birda’s Challenges.

Let’s delve deeper into their key differences to assist in making accurate identifications.


Both hawks and Falcons commonly fly throughout the U.S. However, the Peregrine falcon prefers specific habitats. These falcons often choose coastlines, mountainous regions, and river valleys as their homes. They sometimes reside in cities. Especially during non-breeding and non-migration periods, they primarily reside in these areas.


Hawks typically boast a more extended body profile than falcons. From bill to tail, a hawk might outstretch a falcon by over 10 inches. This difference in size allows enthusiasts to distinguish more readily between the two species.

Wing Structure

Hawks have uniquely designed wings — broad and rounded at the tips. In contrast, Falcons feature sleek, aerodynamic wings. These variations influence each bird’s hunting style and flight pattern.


The Peregrine falcon stands out in terms of speed. Recognised as the world’s fastest animal, it can dive at astonishing speeds, reaching 200 mph. This incredible speed not only enhances their hunting prowess but also makes them a mesmerising sight in nature.


Hawks, with their majestic flight and piercing gaze, have always been a symbol of strength, freedom, and the wild spirit of nature. Understanding and identifying these magnificent raptors, however, requires more than just a casual glance. Navigating the nuances of hawk identification, from wing contours to flight patterns, we see that each species narrates a distinct tale through its characteristics and behaviours.

Yet, no matter how much we learn, there will always be moments in the field where a hawk’s identity eludes us. Turning to a community of fellow bird enthusiasts can be invaluable in such instances. Birda, considered by many, as the best bird identification app available today, harnesses the power of HI (Human intelligence) through its global community to help you identify birds and learn how to do it quicker.  If you’re ever in doubt about a hawk’s species or any other avian wonder, just get a photo and post it on Birda. The vibrant community within the app, comprising both novice birdwatchers and seasoned experts, will pitch in with their insights. And for those eager to spot hawks in their vicinity, Birda’s location feature can point you to prime hawk-watching spots.

Took a picture of a Hawk you can’t identify? Get the Birda app and get your answer today. It’s free!

In wrapping up our exploration of hawk identification, remember that every sighting is an opportunity for discovery and wonder. With tools like Birda at your fingertips, you’re not just identifying birds – you’re joining a global community in celebrating the beauty and mystery of the hawk and avian world.

A bird of prey clearly identifiable from a side angle


Can a Hawk carry away my dog?

No, most hawks do not possess the strength to lift dogs weighing over two pounds. Their primary prey consists of small mammals such as mice and squirrels.

How do you differentiate between a Hawk and a Falcon?

Hawks typically have rounded wings, whereas falcons have pointed ones. Additionally, falcons have fringed feathers along the edges of their wings, which hawks lack.

Is it beneficial to have a Hawk in your backyard?

Absolutely. Hawks play a vital role in naturally controlling rodent populations. However, it is important to supervise smaller pets when they are outdoors, as they may attract these birds of prey.

Connect to nature and like-minded people while you discover and explore the birdlife around you! Amplify your birdwatching experience with Birda today. 

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