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Hawk vs. Owl: Who Would Win? (Differences & Similarities)

The main differences between hawks and owls are size, daily activity pattern, and overall appearance. Owls are bigger, nocturnal birds of prey, while hawks are small, diurnal birds of prey. Owls are also much stronger than hawks.

Do you know the difference between hawks and owls? 

Though they both are birds of prey, these two types of birds have some key distinctions. For starters, their classification, appearance, and daily activity pattern are different.

The two birds do also have some similarities, such as hunting behavior and diet.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the differences between hawks and owls, so you’ll be able to tell them apart in the future. 

Trait Hawk Owl
Scientific Order Accipitriformes Strigiformes
Flight Speed Up to 120 mph Up to 40 mph
Wingspan Up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) More than 6.6 feet (2 meters)
Diet Carnivore Carnivore
Distribution North America, Central America, West Indies, and Jamaica Everywhere, except Antarctica

Differences Between Hawks and Owls

Hawks and owls are very different, from their daily activity pattern to their scientific classification. The most notable differences are their size and appearance though, as it’s very easy to tell the two animals apart.

There are plenty of differences between owls and hawks:

  • Classification
  • Appearance
  • Size
  • Habitat preference
  • Activity pattern
  • Social behavior
  • And hunting techniques

Let’s take a look at them.

Classification: Strigiformes vs. Accipitriformes

Hawks are part of the family Accipitridae, which is a large group of diurnal birds of prey. This group consists of hawks, eagles, vultures, and kites, but not falcons.

Owls are part of the owl grouping known as Strigiformes. The owl’s classification falls under the order of nocturnal birds of prey.

This difference in scientific classification, even though they’re both birds of prey, has to do with their behavioral mechanisms, or more specifically, when they hunt.

owl at night

Differences in Appearance

Owls are generally much larger than hawks. There are several traits that allow you to easily tell them apart.

Trait Hawk Owl
Weight 1 to 5 pounds 1 to 10 pounds
Wingspan Up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) More than 6.6 feet (2 meters)
Beaks Large beak Small beak
Eyes Partly forward-facing Completely forward-facing
Feet Large, yellow, muscular feet Strong feet with a furry appearance
Feathers Longer feathers in the back of their head, and long, feathery tails. Adapted to soaring. Thick feathers with special fibers to minimize sounds emitted during flight. Adapted for silent flight.

Owls have big eyes, small beaks, and large wings. Hawks have longer feathers on the back of their head. Apart from these special features, owl vs hawk are quite similar.

Differences in Habitat Preferences

Hawks and owls are often seen in the same geographical areas, however, they do have different habitual preferences.

Owls are nocturnal birds of prey that live in all kinds of environments, from forests or wooded areas where they can easily swoop down on unsuspecting prey, to cold tundras or rocky mountains, where there’s less cover.

Hawks are daytime hunters and are split into two groups: Accipiters and Buteos. The first prefers forested land, and the second prefers open land.

Hawks and owls both live in a variety of habitats. Hawks typically prefer to live in forest areas while owls may be found in the desert, grasslands, and temperate regions such as forests or wooded land.

owl living in trees

Habitat Preference for Owls

Owls live in almost every habitat on the planet. Some owls, such as the Arctic owl, live in the frozen tundra. Others live in forests, deserts, steppes, grasslands, and so on.

They build their nests in hollows of trees or broken off branches on thinner trees and like to perch on thicker branches.

Habitat Preference for Hawks

Different hawks prefer different habitats, though they’re split into two groups.

Accipiters Buteos
Prefer to live in forested areas, such as woodlands, as they prey mostly on birds. They use the vegetation and trees to their advantage when hunting. Prefers to live in open lands, such as grasslands or deserts, where they can easily spot prey from away. They use their high speeds to surprise their prey.

They build their nests in the crowns on tall trees, where they’ll be safer from predators such as wolves, bears, or coyotes.

Daily Activity Pattern

Owls are primarily nocturnal, while hawks are primarily diurnal. This means they’re active at different times of the day, and hence cross paths less often than with other animals.

The daily activity pattern of an animal largely depends on their natural adaptations, such as whether they can see well in the dark, what prey they hunt, and so on.

As owls have the best night vision among all animals, they naturally hunt during the night. Hawks, on the other hand, are equipped with the best vision during the day, hence why they hunt when the sun is out.

Related: Do Hawks Hunt at Night?

owl living in tress at night

Differences in Social Behavior

Owls and hawks have different social behavior, as well as physical differences. Hawks live in groups, while owls can live either alone or in a group. 

A group of hawks is known as a kettle, while a group of owls is known as a parliament.

Both owls and hawks are very territorial, and will even fight with other birds of prey to protect their territory. 

Owls are more sedentary than hawks, meaning they’re often more inactive.[1]

Related: What Is a Group of Hawks Called?

Differences in Hunting Techniques

Hawks and owls are well-known for their hunting techniques. Hawks primarily use a dive-bomb technique to catch prey in the air. Meanwhile, owls take a different approach by crushing their prey with their feet.

northern harrier hawk

Similarities Between Hawks and Owls

Hawks and owls are both predatory birds, which means they hunt and eat other animals for food. They also prey on many of the same animals.

Both types of birds have sharp talons (claws) and strong beaks that help them capture prey like mice, insects, fish, and small rabbits. 

While most hawks fly at high altitudes to spot their prey from above, owls fly silently at low altitudes to stalk their prey on the ground.

They Eat Many of the Same Things

There are many similarities between hawks and owls. Both animals eat small prey such as rodents, but also larger ones like rabbits[2]

Although they hunt various types of prey, both birds share a voracious appetite. The average hawk eats up to 1/4 pound of meat every day and an owl eats about 1/2 of meat daily.

The diets of most hawks include:

  • Rodents
  • Small mammals
  • Birds
  • Insects
  • Fish
  • Small amphibians
  • Small reptiles

These are typical prey for owls as well.

Related: What Do Hawks Eat? 

owl eating prey at night

Both Are Birds of Prey

Hawks and owls are both birds of prey, which means that they are carnivorous animals that hunt animals for food. They both have strong feet and talons, which they use to crush their prey.

Both hawks and owls have excellent eyesight to be able to lock onto their prey in flight. The difference is that hawks see better at night, while hawks see better during the day.

hawk scavenging

Are Owls Stronger Than Hawks?

In short, yes, owls are stronger than hawks, but that doesn’t mean they always come out on top when it comes to foraging.

Hawks and owls tend to compete with one another for food. Even though they’re typically awake during different parts of the day, they still compete.

When it comes down to foraging, both animals are very effective. They each have their own tools, which they use for hunting:

  • Both hawks and owls have very strong feet and sharp talons.
  • Hawks are very fast, which they use to surprise their prey, while owls can fly completely silently, effectively achieving the same result.
  • Owls are bigger than hawks, enabling them to take down larger prey.

Both owls and hawks have unique characteristics that make them excellent hunters. 

Northern hawk-owl hunting

Hawk vs Owl: Who Would Win

An owl would always defeat a hawk. They are larger and heavier than hawks, which gives them a significant advantage in a fight. Owls do occasionally prey on hawks.

Owls are nocturnal hunters who rely on stealth and surprise to catch their meals. Hawks tend to hunt during the day, which is when owls sleep soundly in their tree-top nests.

Hence, the two animals aren’t always awake during the same hours of the day.

If a fight did break out, the hawk would have a very hard time taking down an owl. Hawks are significantly smaller, and hence can’t overpower an owl. As hawks are generally faster, they may be able to escape an attack from an owl though.

Do Owls Eat Hawks?

Owls do sometimes eat hawks. Most owls have very similar diets, eating small rodents like mice or shrews, though some species of owl hunt other birds of prey, such as hawks.

Related: What Eats Hawks?

Do Hawks Eat Owls?

Hawks will consume whatever food is available. While they can’t prey on owls, they will eat dead owl remains, also known as carrion-eating.

Hawks, like eagles and falcons, are birds of prey and common hunters in the animal kingdom. The group of hawks (Accipitridae) are most commonly known for devouring smaller birds, reptiles, and mammals, but will also eat dead animals.

If a dead animal is available to them, they will stop hunting and simply consume the carrion instead. They’re opportunistic feeders, and won’t pass up on an easy meal.

Related: Do Hawks Eat Birds & Which Ones?

Is an Owl a Hawk?

No, it most certainly is not. Owls and hawks belong to two different orders. 

Hawks are in the order Accipitriformes[3], also known as diurnal birds of prey. Owls belong to the order Strigiformes, also known as nocturnal birds of prey.

While the two animals are different species, they still share some similarities.

Conclusion

When it comes to diversity, hawks and owls are two of the most unique birds. One is a diurnal bird that likes living in woodlands while the other is nocturnal and resides in every habitat on earth (except for Antarctica).

They also differ when it comes to their classification, appearance, and habitat preferences.

If it came down to a fight between a hawk versus an owl, the owl would always win. Owls are larger and heavier than hawks, which gives them a significant advantage in a fight.

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About Kaitlin Mullins

Birds are plenty, and they can be hard to keep track of. Thankfully, Katilin Mullins has taken charge of these. With plenty of free time spent bird watching, she’s a true expert on these intriguing animals.