Most nature adventurers have probably at some point caught the sight of a hawk flying above an open field or even around your local neighborhood.
Hawks are truly fascinating and magnificent birds to see up close, but they also tend to be significantly more reclusive than most other birds you might be familiar with.
So one of the big keys to help you really understand the patterns of local hawks is knowing what they eat.
Many beginners think all hawks are pretty much the same, but the reality is there are many different types of hawks around the world, and they almost all have their own unique diet of food preferences.
Diet is a HUGE driver of both the chosen habitat & the actual hunting behaviors you’ll see from different species while watching hawks.
So, what do hawks eat? It depends on the type of hawk. Most hawks eat a mixture of any prey they can manage to catch. Some hawks absolutely specialize in eating songbirds, while others are much more likely to be seen catching voles or even insects & amphibians.
It all comes down to the different types of habitats & ecosystems occupied by various hawk species, and the unique adaptations like size, weight, aerodynamics that influence which hunting strategies work best.
So, if you’re wondering how different hawks hunt and what they eat, you’ve come to the right place!
This article will break down some different types of hawk you might find out there and look at what they like to eat. We’ll even look at some other types of aerial predators that are commonly confused with hawks.
Read on to find out how different hawks can have a variety of diets depending on where they are from and what their ecosystem has to offer!
Accipiters (The Bird Hunting Specialists)
What Do Cooper’s Hawks Eat?
The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized hawk (similar to crow-sized) that feeds on smaller birds and land mammals.
Cooper’s Hawks fall into a category of birds called “accipiters”, which are known to specialize in hunting other birds.
Accipiters are uniquely adapted for swooping acrobatically through dense forests at high speeds, making them incredibly dangerous to both ground & aerial animals alike.
Their primary hunting style is stealth and speed.
While they are typically known for going after medium sized songbirds, Coopers hawks do also eat small forest rodents like chipmunks, mice & squirrels. This would likely be most common in certain geographic locations, or during booms of rodent populations.
Often found living in suburban neighbourhoods, Cooper’s Hawks can almost become invisible behind dense cover. They fly at powerful speeds to rapidly catch their prey before they know what’s coming.
A Cooper’s Hawk’s favorite meals are:
- Medium Sized songbirds (Robins, Jays, Doves)
- Small Rodents (Mice, Chipmunks, Squirrels)
- Occasionally smaller prey like frogs, snakes & insects
The best time to spot Cooper’s Hawks hunting is during spring when their young are begging for food.
Most hawks will time their nesting strategy with the availability of easy prey like young songbirds. This is especially true for Cooper’s Hawks who have big appetites and rely so heavily on songbirds.
Young Cooper’s hawks can fly and hunt on their own at 5 weeks old.
What Do Sharp-Shinned Hawks Eat?
Sharp-shinned Hawks are very similar to Cooper’s Hawks except they’re quite a bit smaller.
In fact, of all the accipiters in North America, sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest, and this hawk also tends to have the highest percentage of it’s diet being songbirds.
Almost 100% of the sharp-shinned hawk diet is songbirds.
They tend to focus on catching small birds, usually around chickadee or sparrow sized, as opposed to larger birds like robins, doves or quail.
Sharp shinned hawks are often seen hunting during winter in town parks or woodlots searching for prey.
Songbird populations become concentrated around bird feeders during winter creating an easy target, much to the dismay of songbird lovers who feed them.
Sharp-shinned hawks also prefer evergreen trees as places to perch and nest, rather than open fields or forests dominated by other types of trees.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk will cycle through their prey depending on the time of year, as well as the migration patterns of the smaller birds they eat.
What Do Northern Goshawks Eat?
Northern Goshawks are the largest North American member of the Accipiter family.
Like all accipiters, Northern Goshawks rely on dense forest cover and silent flight to catch their prey. They do this both in the air and on the ground.
However, because Northern Goshawks are so much bigger than Cooper’s and Sharpies, their diet is much more balanced between birds & mammals.
A Northern Goshawk’s favorite foods are:
- Snowshoe hares
As the name suggests, they do tend to be primarily a northern hawk, occupying Canada & the northern USA. There’s also a European version in other parts of the world.
Goshawks live at mid-to-high elevations and perch on trees or moderate slopes. They catch their prey and take them to their perch before eating it. Northern Goshawks can hunt in forested areas or open areas depending on the type of prey.
Since Northern Goshawks are opportunistic hunters, they will choose whichever prey is the first that they come across while hunting.
They are mainly non-migratory and are even considered on the Wildlife Endangered list. Logging has been the largest reason why their numbers are dwindling in North America.
Even if you don’t live in north America, you likely have equivalent hunters in your own local area!
Buteos (Soaring High In Open Landscapes)
Unlike the Accipiter family, Buteos tend not to live deep in the forest, and instead can be seen soaring high above open landscapes where they can see long distances.
This often makes them easier to spot compared to smaller forest dwelling hawks.
What Do Red-Tailed Hawks Eat?
Red-tailed Hawks like wide open spaces to find their prey with occasional trees to perch on and make their nests.
Their primary food sources are land mammals like mice or rabbits.
Red-tailed hawks, as with all buteos, are much slower and less aerodynamic than Accipiters. They use a completely different strategy for hunting that involves watching from a distance for slower & more vulnerable opportunities that can’t fly away.
This is one of the reasons why they enjoy wide-open fields – they can spot their prey more easily from a distance and then swoop in to catch it.
A Red-Tail Hawk’s favorite prey are:
They will also sometimes eat other birds, reptiles or insects on occasion.
Like most predators, they are very opportunistic hunters, who will never say no to an easy meal.
These are very common hawks to see soaring over roadsides or perched on telephone poles watching for prey in the open fields.
What Do Red-Shouldered Hawks Eat?
Red-Shouldered Hawks are commonly found in non-dense forested areas with plenty of opportunities for perching and hunting.
Their broad wings help soften the sounds of flapping, which makes them skilled hunters who can easily come upon unsuspecting prey.
A Red-Shouldered Hawk’s favorite foods are:
- Large insects
- Small birds
A lot of Red-Shouldered Hawks are less migratory compared to other types of hawk, often staying year-round in parts of the US and Canada.
What do Broad-Winged Hawks Eat?
Broad-winged Hawks are true opportunistic hunters and eat whatever they can get their claws on. Whether that’s insects, reptiles or small mammals.
Like other hawks on this list, Broad-winged Hawks frequently change their diet depending on the time of year and whatever is available.
They hunt from a perch but are more often seen soaring high above their territory making high pitched territorial calls during courtship and to deter competition.
A Broad-winged Hawk’s favorite foods are:
- Small birds
- Small mammals
These are one of the hawks that migrate and stay in large flocks called kettles.
These groups can be as large as a thousand hawks, including other birds besides the Broad-winged Hawks. They fly together on thermal air currents, so they don’t need to flap their wings as often or use as much energy when flying.
What Do Swainson’s Hawks Eat?
Swainson’s Hawks are especially well-known to cater their diets to the season. During the mating season, they often eat small mammals, which are plentiful at that time.
However when mating season is over, Swainson’s Hawks frequently switch over to insects like grasshoppers or dragonflies which are more common to find during the summer heat.
A Swainson’s Hawk’s favorite foods are:
- Insect larvae
- Ground Squirrels
The Swainson’s Hawk habitat centers around open field conditions. They love recently tilled fields because insects get pulled up from the dirt being plowed.
Hunting insects makes for easy prey, which turns out to be more energy efficient for this particular hawk. They can also be seen perched at wildfires, waiting for prey to run out of the forest to escape the fire.
What Do Ferruginous Hawks Eat?
Ferruginous Hawks are primarily small mammal hunters. They prefer ground-based mammals that can be spotted scurrying around.
They can be found flying over open fields, hovering over burrows, or even standing outside their prey’s den. They also make nests in trees, on towers, or even on the ground or edge of mountains.
A Ferruginous Hawk’s favorite foods are:
- Prairie Dogs
- Small mammals
Given that Ferruginous Hawks can hunt in the air or on the ground, their prey changes depending on the easiest prey to find and collect.
Some Ferruginous Hawks will hunt in groups, and all stand outside dens to promote the chances of actually catching a small mammal.
What Do Rough-Legged Hawks Eat?
Rough-legged Hawks nest in the Arctic and primarily hunt on the tundra. They hunt in the air and on the ground depending on what kind of prey they are hunting.
They primarily go after small mammals but will not pass up animal carcasses they find especially during winter.
A Rough-legged Hawk’s favorite foods are:
- Small mammals
- Carrion (animal carcass)
Similar to the Swainson’s Hawks, the Rough-legged Hawks diet is based on mating seasons. This is partially related to their migratory habits, since all rough-legged hawks fly south for winter.
Lemmings are the mating season prey-of-choice. Given their abundance during that time of year, they are easy prey to catch and feed Rough-legged Hawk chicks.
Many Rough-legged Hawks will eat carrion during winter when food is scarce.
Falcons (Not Actually A Hawk!)
What Do Peregrine Falcons Eat?
While Peregrine Falcons may look like a hawk & eat similar foods, they actually form a completely different group of birds.
I decided to include them in this article simply because they’re so commonly confused with hawks.
The main thing to remember about falcon hunting strategies is that they’re optimized for speed in open landscapes.
Their bodies & wings are typically much more aerodynamic than hawks, enabling them to reach much higher speeds than other birds.
Peregrine Falcons are often found near the coast or bodies of water. They perch on cliffs or man-made structures that resemble cliffs, which is why these birds are often seen living in the middle of big cities on skyscrapers.
A Peregrine Falcon’s favorite foods are:
- Colonial seabirds
As you can tell, Peregrine Falcons mainly prey on other birds. They stay near the coast or bodies of water because their prey finds their food at these locations.
Peregrine Falcons are the world’s fastest bird. Their hunting strategy involves flying to a high altitude and then stooping into a nose-dive that can reach more than 200 mph to catch their prey.
Often, other birds are no match for this speed and once the Peregrine Falcon locks onto it’s target there’s not much they can do to escape.
Other Falcons include Merlins & the American Kestrel in North American.
Eagles (They’re Not A Hawk Either!)
What Do Bald Eagles Eat?
Eagles are also sometimes confused with hawks, but there are actually some significant differences.
The main point of confusion is that both hawks and eagles are considered “birds of prey”, meaning their primarily food source comes from hunting.
However, one of the defining characteristics of Eagles is their size. Eagles are much larger than hawks, and as a result there are some significant differences in lifestyle and hunting strategy.
Bald Eagles primarily eat fish but they will eat other birds and rodents if available or during different seasons. Bald Eagles are also occasional nest-robbers during spring, stealing eggs & nestlings that make easy targets.
A Bald Eagle’s favorite foods are:
- Fish (Salmon amongst others)
- Other water birds
- Small mammals
Bald Eagles have long talons with rough skin that helps keep the fish in their claws. They will swoop down claws-first to grab whatever prey they are hunting.
You’ll commonly spot them perched in large trees by the river.
I did a more thorough analysis of the bald eagle’s hunting strategies in my article about interactions between bald eagles & crows.
Finding Hawks in Your Neighborhood
So we’ve discussed a good sampling of what hawks like to eat, as well as some of the different types of hawks around North America.
In other parts of the world, the hawk species may be different, but you will have your own local equivalents to the examples we explored here.
The main thing to remember is that different hawks are custom designed for different ecological niches.
Some are designed to catch large birds & mammals in open spaces, others specialize in hunting sparrows at semi-wooded forest edges.
If you want to find hawks, consider your habitat:
- Are you in a dense forest where it’s easier to sneak up on unsuspecting songbirds?
- Are you in an open field with less cover and higher rodent populations?
- Are you at the edge of a lake where there are high concentrations of insects, reptiles & amphibians?
These broad ecological questions about habitat can also help you narrow down where to look if you want to find a particular type of hawk.
This means if you want to find a red-tailed hawk, you need to find a wide open space with the right kinds of food & hunting opportunities. It really can be that simple.
This knowledge is also extremely useful for hawk identification because you’ll quickly learn which hawks live & hunt in different niches based on their habitat & diet.
Challenge yourself to find as many hawks as you can the next time you go walking in a forest or along the beach.
Set off to explore different habitats & landscape types with their favorite foods to increase your chances of seeing different types of hawks.
Let me know what you discover out there!