Apr 19 2011

Falcon or Hawk?

Published by at 7:30 am under Birds of Prey,Peregrines

Last Thursday at lunchtime a bird of prey caused quite a stir in downtown Pittsburgh when it perched on a light fixture and very publicly ate a pigeon.

Katie Cunningham sent me photographs of the bird and asked, “Is this a falcon or a hawk?”  She guessed it was a hawk and she was right (it’s an immature red-tailed hawk) but how could she be sure it’s not a peregrine?

Telling the difference between a falcon and a hawk is a common identification problem, so common that people often ask me for help.

Today I’ll tell you how to identify the birds yourself.

Right off the bat I’m going to narrow the scope.  In western Pennsylvania you can see up to nine hawk and three falcon species depending on time of year and habitat.   To make this manageable I’ll address the most common identification question faced by city folks:  Is this bird a peregrine falcon or a red-tailed hawk?

First, ask yourself several key questions.

Is it a bird of prey?  Birds of prey eat meat so they have hooked beaks (see the tip of the beak) and talons (big claws).  If the bird does not have these features it’s neither a falcon nor a hawk and you can stop right there.

What time of year is it?  Peregrines and red-tails live in western Pennsylvania year round so the time of year doesn’t eliminate either bird due to migration.  However identification is more challenging in June and early July when the juvenile peregrines are flying around town.

Where is the bird?  In what habitat?  Is it in the city on a building? (Could be either a peregrine or a red-tail)  In the suburbs? (likely a red-tailed hawk)  On a bridge? (either bird)  On a light pole over the highway? (likely a red-tail)  In a tree?  (likely a red-tail)  Standing on your picnic table? (likely a red-tail)  Standing on the ground?  (likely a red-tail)  …But if it’s June a juvenile peregrine might be found in some of the “red-tail” places.

Is the bird in the human zone?  Is the bird perched close to humans?  If so, it’s likely to be a red-tailed hawk  …but is it June?

What does it look like?

Red-tailed hawks are bigger than crows.  They are white on their chests and speckled brown on their heads, faces, wings and backs.  Their throats are white but their faces are brown all the way to their shoulders.  They have brown hash mark stripes on their bellies (low, between their legs).  Only adult red-tailed hawks have rusty red tails. Juveniles have brown tails with horizontal stripes.

Adult peregrines are smaller than red-tailed hawks, about the size of a crow but bulkier.  Adult peregrines are charcoal gray and white.  Their backs, wings and heads are charcoal gray, their chests are white and their bellies and legs are heavily striped (horizontally) with dark gray.  Their heads are dark gray and their faces are white with dark gray sideburns called malar stripes.  Peregrines have malar stripes; red-tailed hawks do not.

Here’s a photo comparison of the two:  red-tailed hawk on the left, adult peregrine on the right.

What’s this thing about June?
In June in Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines leave the nest and learn to fly.  Immature peregrines are brown and cream-colored instead of gray and white like the adults.  They have no white on their chests and the stripes on their bellies are vertical instead of horizontal.

Newly fledged juvenile peregrines may do almost anything, including perch in the human zone.  Because they are brown you can’t use those easy color cues you use for adults.

Here is a photo comparison of an immature red-tailed hawk (on the left) versus an immature peregrine (on the right).  Though similar in color, they still look very different.

What is the likelihood of seeing either bird?   Peregrines are rare.  Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk in North America.  In Allegheny County there are 14 resident peregrine falcons but I’ll wager there are more than 150 resident red-tailed hawks.

So…you’re usually right if you say it’s a red-tail.  You’re unlikely to see a peregrine near ground level in Pittsburgh.  That’s why we get excited about peregrines.

(Red-tailed hawk photo by Katie Cunningham, Peregrine photos by Kim Steininger)


p.s.  AUGUST 2013: Many readers have recently asked for help identifying a brown-and-beige-colored bird of prey in their backyards with vertical chest stripes like a juvenile peregrine.  If you have a similar bird in your backyard and it …

  • doesn’t have a pronounced malar stripe on its face
  • is hunting for birds
  • moves so fast it seems high strung
  • jumps on the birds in the bushes and chases them through the trees

… then it’s probably a juvenile Coopers hawk.  They are bird-eating birds of prey that specialize in woodland habitat and hunt in tight spaces.

p.p.s  Here’s a good comparison of peregrine vs. Coopers hawk vs. merlin from the OFNC Falcon Watch in Canada.  Note: Merlins occur in Canada but are unusual in Pennsylvania and south of here.

57 responses so far

57 Responses to “Falcon or Hawk?”

  1. Karen Gentryon 17 Mar 2015 at 5:33 pm

    The closest I’ve gotten to a hawk was to pick up an injured red-shouldered hawk in my driveway. It was magnificent, but it died before I could get it transported to the Raptor Recovery Center here in South Carolina.
    Now, I’m reading “Peregrine”, a reprint available as a companion to the new MacDonald book “H is for Hawk.” Early in “Peregrine” you’ll find a complete description of a peregrine that is not just useful but fun to read.

    For some weeks now, I have seen what is most likely a red-shouldered hawk hunting for unwary birds not far from my house here in the country. No doubt with nesting season upon us, hawks will become more visible.


  2. Fredon 12 May 2015 at 10:15 pm

    I live in the forest in Santa Cruz CA, mix of redwoods, oaks, pines, & Bay tress. I saw a pair of what I believe to be hawks today in one of my oaks during the mid-afternoon and then later saw one of them just before dusk. Their feathers are black and white striped with the black being slightly more pronounced. I have one of their feathers but I don’t know how to upload it here.
    Can anyone help me identify the type of bird it is?

  3. Kate St. Johnon 12 May 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Fred, based on habitat and location I would guess one of these three hawk species: Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk or Cooper’s Hawk.

  4. Sydneyon 02 Aug 2015 at 9:47 pm

    My dad shot a bird of prey. We’re pretty sure that it is a hawk. It is light gray with dark wings and no stripes or markings at all. On the back of the wings there are a few reddish brown feathers. It is a really small bird,about the size of a pigeon maybe a bit bigger. We live in Kansas. Please help us identify it.

  5. Kate St. Johnon 03 Aug 2015 at 7:54 am

    Sydney, your description sounds like a Mississippi Kite, an uncommon bird of prey that eats only insects — dragonflies and such — which it catches in the air. Here is some information about the bird: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mississippi_Kite/id

    A word of caution for your father: It is illegal to shoot birds of prey without first obtaining a special “depredating” permit from US Fish and Wildlife showing (in the permit application) that hawks are eating your farm animals — and even then only certain hawk species which might eat farm animals may be taken.
    Here are 2 lists of protected birds (grouped by endangered and non-endangered): http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/RegulationsPolicies/mbta/compare.pdf Notice that ALL hawks are listed as protected.
    Here’s a description of the “depradating” permit as described on the Backyard Chickens chat (some of the links are broken in this answer): http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/113482/legal-elimination-of-hawks-and-owls#post_1322444

    The Mississippi Kite is completely protected by Federal law because it eats only insects. The penalties are strict with big fines and jail time. Perhaps your father didn’t realize that.

  6. Cindyon 23 Aug 2015 at 5:48 pm

    I took a photo of a bird that looked to me like an owl, (but could be a falcon) but only was able to get the side profile. His white underside makes me think it might not be a falcon. But I’m no bird expert. Wanted to copy and send the photo for a professional opinion but this comment box wouldn’t allow me to. Wish I knew what it was.

  7. Jasonon 29 Sep 2015 at 11:17 pm

    My wife and I just recently moved to Lancaster PA. The other day I saw a big shadow fly right over our car and when I drove by and looked to the side I saw this huge bird. I immediately thought thats gotta be a hawk so we snapped a picture and then followed it a bit and recorded it eating an animal. Thought its was cool but now after a few days have passed I keep hearing this loud bird call constantly screaming and all i wanna do is go by an airsoft gun and shoot so I can finally get some peace and quiet (of course I wouldnt really do it) but still not a bad thought.

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