Difference Between Hawk And Owl

Despite being birds of prey, hawks and owls are not much alike.

Hawks are the typical medium-sized diurnal raptors with the agility to chase down prey.

Whereas owls are the freaks of the avian world that silently hunt in the night.

In fact,

Hawks are so different from owls that you need just one glance to tell them apart.

So, if you ever wonder:

Is An Owl a Hawk?

It most certainly isn’t.

You see, owls are not even from the same raptor order as those of hawks.

On a phylogenetic basis, hawks and owls seem related only because they both are bird species.


A hawk resembles an owl only as much as a pigeon or a sparrow does. 

For the same reason, owls are different from all other raptors including eagles, kites, harriers, and even vultures (see figure 1).

Difference between hawk and owl

Figure 1: Representing Classification Differences Between Owls and Hawks

Besides, hawks tend to stay active during the day while owls hunt in the dark hours.

As if nature itself has divided these creatures into separate regimes. 

Additionally, owls have characteristic large heads with enormous eyes.

Meanwhile, hawks have extremely small heads on their relatively large but streamlined bodies.

And so, 

Hawks and owls differ in their appearances, behaviors, habitats, as well as their location in the scientific classification.

So, if you are curious:

What Is The Difference Between An Owl And a Hawk?

Perhaps, owls resemble hawks only because they both hunt for live prey. 

You see, owls’ closest relatives are Nightjars (Birds from order Caprimulgiformes), and not the raptors (Birds from order Falconiformes).


Some ornithologists suggest that owls should not even be called raptors. 

To appreciate the difference between hawks and owls, here are the details:

1. Differences in Appearance

Hawks Owls
Size and Shape Typically, smaller than owls. Weigh about 0.5-2kgs; grow as tall as 60cm with wingspans of 1m.

The head is smaller than the body mass.

Streamlined body shape.

Mostly bigger than hawks.

Weigh about 0.4-4kgs; grow about 13-75cm height with wingspans typically exceeding 2m width.

Heads are significantly bigger compared to body mass.

Not streamlined as hawks.

General Appearance Covered completely with feathers. 

colors ranging from grey to red-brown mostly with white streaks.

Necks may have dark streaks or spots.

Always seems alert with an erect posture.

Covered with thick downy feathers. 

Colors ranging from snowy white to yellow and dark browns to black.

Most owls have splotches and stripes under their wings. Some even have horns.

Seem drowsy during the day, but most alert with the approach of night.

Can twirl their head to a 180 degree.

Beak Hooked black beaks.

Some species have teeth in their upper mandibles called  ‘Tomial teeth’.

Short curved and downward-facing beak.

No teeth.

Feet and Talons Yellow muscular feet with a scaly appearance.

3 toes in front while 1 toe facing backward.

Curved black talons, typically 2-inches long.

Strong muscular feet with furry appearance.

2 toes in front and two in back, giving the owl more even footing than a hawk.

Razor-sharp gripping talons exceeding 3-4 inches in length.

Feathers Thick and broad but sleek feathers, allow the hawks to soar on rising thermals and fly with precision.

Long feathery tails.

Thick feathers with fibers arranged in such a way to minimize flight sound, allowing mute flight.

Medium-sized tails.

Eyes Forward-facing giving excellent binocular vision.  The biggest eyes for any flying bird allowing maximum binocular vision with the faintest of lights

So, owls can see in the night.

Hearing Great hearing,

useful for finding mates.

Parabolic ears that can detect a rodent scuttling away at least 1 meter deep within the ice.
Voice Produce strong cries, famous for ‘Chwirk’ sound. Owl hoots are the most pronounced calls, unlike any other bird.
Gender Differentiation Males are about 2/3rd the size of a female, giving them more agility. Females are darker and slightly bigger than males.

2. Differences in Habitat Preferences 

Hawks Owls
Ideal Habitat Buteos like red-tailed hawks prefer deserts and open areas. While accipiter hawks like Cooper’s hawks prefer forests. Different owls stay in different environments from freezing cold tundra to rocky mountains, grassy plains, and warm deserts.
Nests Build stick nests on high perches or on rocky cliffs.

Most sleep on high perches of dead trees.

Gather in the same nests for breeding seasons, but some may not use the same nest again.

Invade nests of other animals like hawks or squirrels.

Sometimes eat the previous residents of the nest, as their first meal in the new house.

3. Differences in Behaviors

This can be described as following: 

Hawks Owls
Activity Hours Active only during the day, with maximum activity in early morning hours or late evenings. Active during the night as they can see without light. Most active in the late evening to rising of the sun.
Social Behaviors Don’t live in flocks. But may live and hunt with their mates during the breeding season.

A Group of flying hawks, called a “kettle”, is seen only during the migratory seasons.

Owls can be found as singles, mates, or even as families roosting together.

May keep each other warm or watch out for mobbing.

Interestingly, a group of owls is called a “parliament”.

Flight patterns Fly through flapping and soaring on thermals.

Agile enough to dive in tear-drop shape while exceeding 220km/hours.

Can glide on thermals, but mostly flap.

The microfibers of their thick feathers allow them a mute flight of about 60km/hour.

Hunting Jump-dive the target, fly away with the dead prize, and eat at some secure place.

If the victim is too heavy to be carried away, only then eat on the site.

Can hear prey, observe the site through their eyes. And silently knock the victim, covering it with their wings.

Meanwhile, crush prey with their feet and eat on the site.

Prey Eat small rabbits, rodents, birds, toads, lizards, and insects.

May eat carcass when sick or too old.

Hunt all kinds of birds and animals, from small rodents to large foxes.

May eat away a whole family of crows within a single night.

Breeding Patterns Mates come together only during the breeding season.

Typically mate for life.

Can produce up to three broods in a single breeding season.

Courtship involves a display of dominance by high-pitched sounds and agile flying maneuvers.

Mates may stay together even after the breeding season.

Mate for life.

Can produce up to two broods in a single breeding season.

Courtship involves calling a female bird to a nest with hooting sounds and presenting her with food and provision.

Eggs Both parents incubate the eggs.

A single clutch of eggs consists of 1-5 eggs.

Eggs are slightly blue to white with brown spots.

Mostly females incubate the eggs.

A clutch of eggs consists of 2-18 eggs.

Eggs are white to brown with splotches.

Hatchlings Hawk chicks have white fuzzy feathers.

Hatchlings fledge when they turn 4-6 weeks old.

Parents feed their babies by bringing the kill home.

Owlets have furry feathery bodies.

Eggs hatch after 3-5 weeks of incubations and fledge in 40 days.

4. Other Differences

Hawks Owls
Digestive System Don’t have an exceptionally corrosive digestive system, so can hardly eat carcasses.

Swallow bones and regurgitate the undigested food.

Avoid eating the dead.

Swallow bones, furs, and even feathers. Therefore, their droppings are white in color.

Judgment Ability Among raptors, have highly developed cranial nerves. So, they can judge a situation and therefore, can avoid unnecessary risks. Most of their brain space is taken up by their eyes. So much so that owls are unable to feel fear. And so, they make the most irrational judgments.
Spiritual Associations In several cultures, hawks represent strength and even spiritual awakening. In most traditions, owls are considered a sign of wisdom.

Are Owls Stronger Than Hawks?

Owls are normally bigger and bulkier than hawks.

However, their strength comes from three major factors:

1. Senses

Owl eyes are the size of human eyes, with the ability to see in the faintest of lights.

Though hawks have excellent vision, they cannot see in the night. A

An owl can attack hawks undetected, taking advantage of dark nights.

This is precisely why even crows fear owls.

They understand that an owl can eat them up without even being seen.

Furthermore, owls can hear better than hawks.

2. Gripping Talons

Raptors have four toes arranged in 3 toes to the front and one facing backward.

However, owls have two toes on one side and two on the other side. 

Owls have rather even footing compared to other raptors like hawks.

This also means that owls have a different foot-functioning mechanism.

Therefore, their mechanical strength also varies.


Owls can crush their victims more easily than hawks do.

That said, owl talons are longer and sharper than most raptors.


While a hawk can scratch a human, an owl can dip its talons inside a human skull.

Make sure to never mess with an owl!

3. Irrationality

Like crows, hawks have quite the developed brains. 

Every decision a hawk takes is rather measured. 

However, an owl’s brain space is mostly occupied by its eyes.

The rest of the brain is wired for heightened senses and killing instinct, leaving not much room for judgment ability.

This idea is supported by the absence of the Dorsal Ventricular Ridge– the portion of the bird brain that helps in decision making.

Which is why an owl cannot perceive the consequences of its own actions. 

Hence, an owl doesn’t fear anything

An owl will take all kinds of risks, on the slightest of whim.

This makes the owl an exceptionally powerful bird, as it does not understand its own limits.

A comparison between the strengths of the two birds is depicted in figure 2.

Difference between a hawk and owl

Figure 2: Comparison of Strengths of Hawks and Owls

Related article – Are owls raptors?

Hawk vs Owl – Who Would Win?

That depends on the species as well as the time of the day.

You see, an owl is usually bigger than a hawk as mentioned earlier

However, most hawks are twice as fast as an average owl.

Since speed often outwins raw strength therefore, 

If a battle were to take place during the day, a hawk is likely to win against an owl.

This will be true if a large hawk, say a red-tailed hawk, attacks a small owl as an elf-owl of merely 6-inch tall.


If an owl attacks a hawk in the night, then even the smallest of owls will surely win.

So, if a tawny owl decides to eat Cooper’s hawk in dinner, that hawk would be toast.

This is mainly because hawks cannot see in the night. 

But partially because owls fly silently and can crush their victim with a single blow. 

That said, hawks are diurnal birds while owls are nocturnal predators.

Therefore, these birds are highly unlikely to even cross paths, let alone fight each other. 

Besides, hawks are fairly rational birds.

A hawk will probably get cold feet and flee the scene before a fight even begins. 

So, if an average owl fights a typical hawk, 

The owl will win because it is wired for killing and the hawk is an over-thinker.

A hawk will try to fight owls, only if it’s nesting. 

Even then, it will only try to mob out the owl, instead of eating it.

Wrapping Up

Hawks hunt in the daylight, while owls kill in the night as they can see in the dark.

They are so different from each other that they don’t even share the same taxonomic order.

Generally, owls are bulkier and stronger than hawks.

They often hunt for hawk families.

So, if the two birds were to fight, a hawk is likely to lose

Here’s some related articles about hawks and owls which you may find interesting

Do hawks eat owls?

Do hawks attack humans?

Why do hawks circle?


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