Hawks are some of the most efficient hunters in nature. Although these birds are no danger to humans unless you corner them or approach their nests, the same can’t be said for small animals like rodents and birds that live in fear of attacks from above.
If you’re as fascinated by these creatures as I am, you’ll probably want to learn more about how hawks hunt. Let’s take a look at how these birds of prey catch their food.
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Table of Contents
How Do Hawks Hunt: All You Need To Know
What Is A Hawk?
The word hawk is used to describe quite a wide variety of birds of prey or raptors. Technically, the term is used to describe birds of prey of the Buteo and Accipiter groups, although for many people the term is used to describe just about any raptor that’s smaller than an eagle.
Hawks are found all over the United States and some states like California have more than 10 different types. Hawks come in various shapes and sizes, but what they all have in common is sharp eyesight and even sharper talons. Let’s take a closer look at the hawks’ most important weapons.
Hawks have a long, inward curving claw on each of their toes. These sharp claws are known as talons and they are very important for hunting. Talons are lethal weapons that are used to capture, control and kill the prey of hawks.
Have you ever heard the phrase: ‘watch like a hawk’? These birds have some of the best eyesight of any animal on the planet and are known to be able to recognize prey animals up to 3 times further away than humans can.
The lens, retina, pupil, and cornea of hawks are structured in the eye in a way that lets in plenty of light and works to magnify the image. Although their color vision is so superbly developed, their night vision is not thought to be especially good.
What do hawks eat?
Hawks are birds of prey which means they are carnivores or meat-eaters. These birds are specially adapted to catch and kill other animals, although some species will eat animals that are already dead if they find them.
Hawks come in many shapes and sizes and feed on all sorts of prey items, including insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and other birds.
How do hawks hunt?
The various kinds of hawks have very different ways of hunting, usually depending on what kind of prey they catch. Let’s take a look at some of the ways hawks hunt.
1. Stealth Attacks
Many hawks hunt by watching for prey from a distance with their superior eyesight. Once they’ve seen their prey on the ground below, they fly in and swoop down on it from above. White-tailed Hawks, for example, hunt in this way by soaring over an area slowly while scanning the ground below for small animals.
Ferruginous hawks will often use a different technique and hunt from a perch on a rock or a tree instead. Watching from there, these hawks fly out to attack. Another way of looking for prey from above is by hovering. Rough-legged hawks are masters of this technique and this hawk hunts by hovering in a fixed position over fields looking for its rodent prey below, before dropping down to catch it.
One very special bird, the Harris’s hawk is known to hunt in teams. By working together, these hawks are able to catch large, fast prey like jackrabbits and cottontails in the dry open landscapes of the southwest.
The birds work together to search the landscape and find their prey. Once found, the hunt is on and each bird works together to block all escape routes into cover, or chase the animal out of cover if it gets past them. Once the kill is made, these hunting hawks share their meal. Rabbits beware!
3. Aerial Maneuvers
The accipiters like Cooper’s hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks are specialist bird hunters. They hunt their prey by flying from a perch and surprise their prey with rapid, agile flight before chasing it down and catching it on the wing, usually in areas with plenty of trees and plant cover.
Hawks that hunt in this way tend to have short, rounded wings to allow them to fly through small spaces at high speed, and large tails for making sharp turns while chasing down their prey.
Unfortunately, this kind of hawk will occasionally hunt the birds at your feeder. Last summer, a pair of accipiters set up a nest in a tree above one of my bird-feeding stations and terrorized the visitors for several months!
Ospreys, although not true hawks are often known as ‘fish hawks’. These great hunters mostly eat fish of about half a pound in weight that they catch from the surface of fresh and salt waters.
To help catch their slippery prey, ospreys have sharp, barb-like scales inside the toes and long sharp talons that they can lock into place. These birds also have dense oily, feathers that don’t get waterlogged when they dive into the water.
Ospreys can also close their nostrils before a dive, although they don’t usually go deeper than about 3 feet below the surface. These birds hunt by flying 30 to 130 feet above the water surface before diving feet first and catching fish.
5. Speed attacks
Other birds of prey like falcons hunt with pure speed. These birds are able to fly faster than the birds they eat and catch them in flight in the open air, often after swooping down from a great height to build up speed. Birds that hunt in this way tend to have long, pointed wings.
Learning to Hunt
In the case of Red-tailed hawks, the baby hawks leave the nest about 6 weeks after hatching. The parents will then continue to feed the baby hawk for about 3 weeks after fledging and continue to support the young hawk for up to 8 weeks while it learns to catch its own meals. The baby hawk calls a lot in this time, constantly reminding their parents about how hungry they are.
Do hawks hunt at night?
Hawks are only able to hunt safely and effectively when it’s light out. Although hawks may hunt into low-light conditions, they rely on sight to find and catch their prey, which is impossible after dark.
When do hawks hunt?
Hawks can be seen hunting at just about any time of the day. There does seem to be an increase in hunting early in the morning and later in the afternoons, although these birds will also hunt during the heat of the day if the right opportunity presents itself.
Do hawks hunt cats?
Unfortunately, this does happen, although not often. Large hawks like Northern Goshawks and Red-tailed hawks have been known to catch and kill domestic pets like small cats and kittens.
Hawks are definitely some of the coolest birds out there. Now that you know a little more about how these incredible predators hunt, you can be glad you’re not on the menu!