One of the amazing things about hawks is their huge variety of different strategies for hunting and catching prey.
Some hawks hunt by soaring high over open landscapes as they watch for unsuspecting prey animals below. Others will choose a silent perch at the edge of a meadow, then swoop down at just the right moment.
There are even hawks that specialize in hunting birds on the fly, swerving & navigating between trees to catch their prey.
Many people think all hawks are essentially the same, but actually, these birds of prey come in a variety of shapes & sizes designed to specialize in hunting animals as small as insects, up to the size of full-grown rabbits!
Hawks will even change their hunting behaviors according to the particular opportunities of weather, season, or types of prey they’re going after.
The more you learn about these different hunting strategies, the easier it is to locate and identify different types of hawks and also to interpret their behavior.
So today let’s explore 7 different methods that hawks use to hunt their prey, and how you can observe these life and death scenarios in nature.
1. High Soaring
One of the most commonly seen hunting tactics used by hawks is high soaring.
When hunting from a high soar, a hawk will fly up high into the sky and soar around on thermals while waiting to see opportunities down on the ground.
The advantage of this hunting style is it enables the hawk to cover a lot of distance without burning very much energy. This strategy works especially well for large hawks like red-tailed hawks.
Red-tailed hawks have very large wings that enable them to soar up high for long periods of time, putting prey animals at the ground on high alert.
Using this strategy, the aerial predator is able to keep prey animals stressed out for long periods of time, while patiently waiting for the perfect moment to swoop down and make the kill.
The scream of the red-tailed hawk is also sometimes used as a scare tactic, causing animals to suddenly flee, wasting valuable energy, and giving away their location while dampening their own awareness.
Look for this type of hunting in open landscapes where it’s often used for finding large prey and carrion like rabbits and ground squirrels.
The high visibility of this hunting strategy makes it the perfect place to begin studying how hawks hunt (and it’s also used by eagles), however, this is just the first of many different options.
2. Low Soaring
Low soaring is another hunting strategy that also happens in open habitats like fields & meadows, however in this case the hawk is flying much lower to the ground and generally in a straight line.
This is a very opportunistic form of hunting that relies on the element of surprise and fast action. It’s often seen in hawks a bit smaller than a red-tailed hawk, like northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks & harris hawks.
As prey animals are spooked by this fast-moving raptor gliding in from above, they react with a fearful scurrying away.
Low soaring is especially suitable for catching small prey like voles, as well as larger animals like squirrels or rabbits that might be suddenly caught off guard.
From the hawk watchers perspective, this hunting behavior is a bit harder to observe when compared to high soaring, but positioning yourself at a lookout point where you can see better makes a big difference.
I often see this hunting strategy being used by northern harriers during windy conditions because the wind helps them hover briefly without getting tired, which leads us into the next hunting style…
3. Hover & Pounce Hunting
In hover & pounce hunting, the hawk flies low, again over the open landscape until it sees small prey like voles on the ground.
The hawk will then pause in place and hold itself in a stationary position by flapping its wings rapidly, causing it to hover in the air.
The hawk will hover in this position for several seconds, before finally diving down to pounce on the unsuspecting prey, most likely some small mammal like a vole or rat.
This hunting style is most suitable for hawks that have decent soaring abilities, but also good maneuverability and efficient wings built for lots of flapping.
Look for this hunting behavior especially being used by rough-legged hawks and ferruginous hawks.
One thing I find fascinating about this hunting strategy is its kind of like an aerial version of perch & swoop hunting, which we’ll cover in an upcoming section.
Stooping is a style of hunting most often used by falcons, which contrary to popular belief are not actually hawks!
Falcons are a different type of aerial predator that are however commonly confused with hawks, so it’s worthwhile to discuss their hunting strategies in this article.
Stooping is when an aerial predator flies high up into the sky and then dives down from above at incredible speeds in order to prey on other birds.
This provides the critical element of surprise, combined with an incredible speed that even the wariest birds are unable to overcome.
The incredible impact of the falcon’s feet will typically kill the target in mid-air, and then the falcon will follow it down to the ground, or stoop again to catch it mid-air.
The only defense smaller birds have against a well-executed stoop is to gather in large enough flocks and hope the falcon doesn’t choose you.
This is probably one of the reasons why common prey birds like starlings gather in incredibly large groups around dusk, forming murmurations as a sort of group “defense in numbers” situation.
5. Perch & Swoop Hunting
Perch & swoop hunting is the first strategy we’ve covered that doesn’t start from a flying position.
In perch & swoop hunting, the hawk will choose a prominent tree branch to sit and look over an area of high animal abundance.
Good locations include the edge of a meadow, or next to a wetland where you find lots of grasses & food for small mammals & ground birds like grouse, pheasants & chickens.
Whenever you see a hawk perching this way for long periods of time, keep watching and time how long it takes for the hawk to make a move. You might think the hawk is resting, but this is often not the case.
If you keep chickens at home, this is one of the most common hunting behaviors that will be used against your chickens.
This is because perch & swoop hunting works especially well in mixed habitats with small lawns & fields edging up against forested zones.
The space is not big enough for high soaring, low soaring, or hovering, but it’s perfectly suited for perching at the edge & waiting for the right moment.
The hawk conserves energy by perching in the tree for long periods of time, waiting for voles & mice to become active, then they swoop down to catch the prey.
It’s an ideal hunting strategy for the types of backyard homestead habitats where people keep small animals like chickens.
This is also the preferred hunting strategy of owls (which you can learn about more in my article on why owls bob their heads).
6. Aerial Pursuit
Aerial pursuit is a fast-paced hunting style used by highly maneuverable hawks (accipiters) like Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks.
This style of hunting is commonly used in the deep forest where success depends on speed, acrobatics & the element of surprise.
This also means it’s a very different habitat compared to the other styles we’ve explored.
The most common prey caught by this style of hunting are birds, which is a pretty incredible feat when you think about how fast and maneuverable songbirds are.
In contrast to the earlier hunting locations which tended to be in open habitats with long-distance visibility, aerial pursuit hunting is especially suitable for mixed habitats, or even in the middle of a dense forest.
Here the action happens extremely fast and if you so much as blink during the moment of attack, you might miss the entire hunt!
Songbirds will rapidly ditch into the bushes making high-pitched alarm calls and become silent with fear of the stalking hawk.
This is one of the most common types of hunting behavior that can be seen in any standard suburban or urban backyard, making aerial pursuit a great opportunity for learning bird language!
7. Co-operative Hunting
As if the above hunting strategies of hawks weren’t already fascinating enough, now we come to co-operative hunting.
Co-operative hunting is when multiple hawks team up together to help them catch prey more easily, or to catch larger prey.
Usually, this involves one hawk flying into an area causing a panicked flurry of retreat from nearby animals while a second hawk waits just ahead of the wake to make the kill.
There’s a great article from Audubon that describes co-operative hunting of harris hawks used to catch larger prey than their usual targets during winter when small prey is more scarce.
Similar co-operative hunting behaviors have been observed in all kinds of hawks & falcons including red-tailed hawks, zone-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, cooper’s hawks & more.
I know from personal experience this can even extend to include wake-feeding off the disturbance patterns of entirely different animal species like foxes.
I once observed a Northern Harrier catching voles that were being pushed out by the wave of disturbance caused by a hunting red fox!
Though it’s unlikely the fox was willingly co-operating with the hawk to make this possible, it’s a great example of the incredible hunting intelligence that hawks possess.
How To Observe Hawks Hunting
If you want to predict the most likely hunting strategies being used by hawks in your area, simply answer the following questions:
What Habitat Are You In?
- If you’re in a big open habitat with little in the way of tree cover, look for hawks using high soaring, low soaring, and hover & pounce hunting.
- Forested or mixed habitats will invite more aerial pursuit and perch & swoop hunting.
What Type of Hawk are you Observing?
It’s not always necessary to know the exact species of hawk you’re observing, however thinking in terms of size categories will make hunting strategies much easier to predict.
- Large hawks like red-tailed hawks are more likely to use high soaring, or perch & swoop hunting.
- Medium-sized hawks with greater maneuverability that still live in open landscapes will tend to use low soaring, perch & swoop, or hover & swoop hunting.
- Small forest hawks with exceptional maneuverability will tend to hunt using aerial pursuit methods.
And if you want a great reference guide to the most commonly used hunting strategies of different hawk types, I highly recommend getting a copy of The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to The Natural History Of North American Birds.
What Types of Prey Live Here?
- Are you in a place that has lots of small mammals like voles? Look for low soaring, hover & pounce, and perch & swoop hunting.
- Are you seeing big flocks of birds gathered together? Look for aerial pursuit (and possible stooping if the birds are flying in open habitat).
- Are you in a location inundated with larger prey mammals like rabbits and ground squirrels? Look for predominantly high soaring & low soaring hunting, with possible aerial pursuits in the case of accipiters and co-operative hunters.
These observations require a bit of extra wildlife tracking skills, but sometimes the best way to learn about predators is to study their prey!
Also bear in mind that most hawks have a primary hunting strategy and at least one secondary hunting strategy they might switch between during particular seasons or weather conditions that affect prey behavior.
What’s The Season & Time of Day?
- Always remember that hawks will hunt most actively around times of peak wildlife activity, which typically happens at dawn & dusk.
- While it is perfectly common to see hawks hunting at all times of day (especially during the nesting season) being able to time your hawk watching around dawn & dusk will typically help you to see more action.
- You might also find certain habitats are essentially abandoned by hawks during winter, while spring and summer are great times of abundance.
The more you study these ecological patterns of animal behavior in your environment, the faster you’ll be able to find hunting activity taking place, and even predict which hunting styles are used in each season near you.
So now you have everything you need to start making spectacular observations of hawks hunting in your local area.
All you have to do now is get outside and find some cool hawks to watch. Let me know what you discover out there!
Kathryn Denkowski says
I just love and look forward to your podcasts. They are amazing and informative. My favorite part of the Texas State Fair was the “Birds of Prey” exhibit and one of my all time favorite books is “My Side of the Mountain”. You bring information and enjoyment to my day.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks Kathryn! I really appreciate that!