What Do Hawks Eat? [Species, Prey, and Tactics]

As carnivorous birds, hawks are some of the most skillful hunters thanks to their sharp talons and strong hooked beaks. And like most birds of prey, they typically hunt during the day. But what do hawks eat in the wild?

Hawks primarily eat small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. However, their diet may vary from one species to another based on prey availability, seasonal changes, habitat, competition, and predation pressure. Human activities also have an impact on hawks’ diets.

So then, what types of small mammals, reptiles, and birds do hawks eat? And do hawks eat plants? Read on to discover more about the typical diet of common hawk species and the role these birds play in the ecosystems.

Primary Food Sources for Hawks

The primary food sources for hawks comprise mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Let’s discuss each food source in detail, including what size animals do hawks eat.

What Do Hawks Eat? [Species, Prey, and Tactics] 1

Small Mammals

The common preferred food for hawks is small mammals. These include:


Hawks prey on rodents such as mice, rats, voles, and squirrels. These birds prefer rodents because of their abundance in open fields, nutritional value, and small size. For example, rats contain 63 grams of protein and 33 grams of fat per 300 grams.

So then, do hawks eat groundhogs? Yes, especially baby groundhogs since the adults are large compared to other rodents they prey on.

Rabbits and Hares

Apart from the rodents, hawks also feed on rabbits and hares. These small mammals are high in protein, vitamin B12, and vitamin B3. And the rabbit, for example, contains 44% of protein content and 41% vitamin B3 per 100 grams. But do hawks eat cats? Being opportunistic feeders, hawks may occasionally kill and eat cats.

Read Also: Do Hawks Eat Coyotes? Or, Raccoons? Do They Eat Foxes?


Additionally, hawks are known to prey on their feathered cousins, including passerines, pigeons, bluebirds, and doves. These birds also feed on waterfowl, such as ducks, swans, and geese. Additionally, hawks usually eat game birds like guinea fowls, pheasants, quails, and peacocks.

And like other animals, birds are high in protein and other nutrients hawks need to survive. For instance, pigeons have about 24% of protein matter and 15% fat content, while ducks contain about 20% of protein per 85 g. Chickens, Cardinals, Doves etc. are also on the hawks’ menu.


Hawks also eat a variety of reptiles, such as snakes, lizards (iguanas), and turtles. Generally, hawks consume different snake species, like the black rat, garter, and rattlesnake. Most snakes contain 20% to 25% of protein per 100 grams.

For turtles, these predatory birds prefer eating their eggs and hatchlings. Once in a while, a hawk may pick up a turtle and drop it from high up in the air to break open the shell and eat the soft flesh. Turtles are a healthy source of protein and iron, essential for hawks.


Also, it is very typical for hawks to prey on certain species of amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders. Frogs are an excellent source of protein, containing about 33% of protein per 100 grams. Like frogs, salamanders are also high in protein and other nutrients but low in fat.


Some species of hawks are known to eat insects like grasshoppers, crickets, moths, and dragonflies. They also prey on spiders and crustaceans such as blue crabs, crayfish, and prawns.

Hawks eat insects and crustaceans because they are found in many habitats and are a good source of protein. On average, insects contain 35% to 60% of dry weight protein content.

Overview of Hawk Species And Their Adaptations

Hawks are diurnal birds of prey that belong to the family Accipitridae. Apart from the hawks, this family comprises at least 10 groups of raptors. These include kites, buzzards, booted eagles, harriers, Old World vultures, fish eagles, sparrowhawks, large eagles, and snake eagles.

Further, hawk species are categorized into the Accipitriformes order and phylum Chordata.

Accipitridae Family

Within the Accipitridae family, several genera exist, with each comprising many hawk species, stay here to find out about these genera.


This is the largest or most diverse genus in the family Accipitridae. It comprises at least 51 recognized hawk species, including sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, goshawks, and sparrowhawks.

Birds in this genus feature hooked bills and long, sharp talons for killing their prey. They also boast short, broad, and rounded wings, along with a slender body, allowing them to maneuver easily in flight.


This genus comprises medium to somewhat large raptors, such as the Ferruginous hawk, Rough-legged hawk, and Red-shouldered hawk. Their total length ranges from 12 to 30 inches, and their wingspan varies from 26 to 67 inches.

Species in this genus are also called buzzard hawks and boast broad wings and short but wide fan-shaped tails. These features allow these birds to soar for extended periods without flapping their wings.


The genus Circus is typically known as harriers. This genus comprises at least 16 hawk species, including the Hen harrier, Montagu’s harrier, and northern harriers.

Unlike Buteos, harriers are a group of medium-sized hawk species. These hawks are characterized by their long, narrow wings and long, slender bodies.

Falconidae Family

The order Falconiformes consists of 5 families, including Accipitridae and Falconidae. As for the family Falconidae, it comprises around 60 species of small-to-medium raptors. These species are grouped into two, including:


The falcons comprise about 40 species with long, tapered wings and smaller bodies than hawks or eagles. This enables them to attain swifter flights. As such, they can snatch prey while in mid-flight.


This genus in the family Falconidae contains a single surviving species, the crested caracara. Crested caracara can be identified by its broad wings, long yellow legs, black crest, bluish hooked bill, and bare red face. Also known as carrion hawk, the crested caracara often feeds on carrion.

Geographic Distribution

Hawk species are widely distributed on all continents apart from Antarctica. This is because the Antarctic continent is exceedingly cold and dry, with minimal vegetation or prey for hawks to feed on.

Generally, these species are adapted to various habitats, from grasslands to deserts and forests to mountains. However, their distribution varies based on their particular adaptations and ecological requirements.

Adaptations for Hunting

Hawks have evolved various adaptations to allow them to hunt successfully. Some common adaptations include:

Broad or Narrow Wings

Hawks boast broad or narrow wings that enable them to fly swiftly when pursuing potential prey. They can soar incredibly fast around shrubs and trees without clipping a wing.

Hooked Beaks

Additionally, these birds of prey are equipped with sharp and robust hooked-tipped beaks. Apart from using their beaks to tear flesh, the birds also use their bill to kill their prey efficiently.

Sharp Talons

Hawk species boast sharp and robust curved talons. These claws are adapted for grasping and killing potential prey.


Like other raptors, hawks also have powerful binocular vision. This allows them to spot prey, including as small as mice from miles above.

Hawks’ Species-Specific Diets

While all hawks are meat eaters, different species have their preferred diets. These include red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks. Check out this table summarizing the specific diet for common hawk species.

Hawk SpeciesMost Preferred Diet
Red-Tailed HawkSmall mammals
Beetles and worms for the fledglings
Cooper’s HawkSmall to medium size birds and small mammals
Sharp-Shinned HawkSmall birds, large insects, frogs, lizards, and small mammals
GoshawkSmall to medium-sized mammals and medium to large-sized birds
Harris’s HawkMedium-sized mammals, birds, lizards, and carrion
Red-Shouldered HawkSmall mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other birds
Swainson’s HawkLarge insects, when not breeding
Reptiles, rodents, and rabbits, when breeding
Rough-legged HawkSmall rodents, when breeding
Small mammals in winter
Birds in summer
Ferruginous HawkSmall mammals, large insects, snakes, and birds
Peregrine FalconBirds
American KestrelLarge insects, small rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and birds
MerlinSmall birds, insects, bats, and rodents

Now let’s dive into the specific diets of each hawk species.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Small mammals like mice, voles, rabbits, ground squirrels, and hares make up a large part of this hawk species’ diet. However, young red-tailed hawks mostly eat beetles and worms while in the nest.

Cooper’s Hawk

The diet of Cooper’s hawks consists mainly of small to medium size birds like sparrows, pigeons, doves, and finches. Besides songbirds, this hawk usually preys on game birds like pheasants and grouse. And like the red-tailed hawk, this species also feeds on many small mammals.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Like the Cooper’s hawk, this hawk species mainly eats small birds like quails, doves, woodpeckers, shorebirds, and various songbirds. It can also consume frogs, lizards, and small mammals.


The most important prey species of goshawks are small to medium-sized mammals like squirrels and rabbits. These hawks also eat medium to large-sized birds, such as corvids and pigeons.

Harris’s Hawk

The Harris’s hawk feeds mostly on medium-sized mammals, including rodents, hares, and rabbits. Its diet also comprises other birds and lizards. If available, this hawk may also eat carrion.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Like most hawk species, the diet of red-shouldered hawks primarily consists of small mammals like chipmunks, shrews, mice, and voles. They may also consume reptiles, amphibians, and other birds.

Swainson’s Hawk

This hawk species feeds almost exclusively on large insects like beetles, locusts, and grasshoppers when it’s not breeding. During the breeding season, the species feeds its chicks, reptiles, rabbits, and rodents.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged hawks eat small rodents like voles and lemmings during the breeding season. Again, birds are their predominant diet during summer. And in the winter, these birds mainly consume small mammals like shrews and mice.

Ferruginous Hawk

The Ferruginous hawk mainly feeds on ground squirrels, jackrabbits, pocket gophers, kangaroo rats, and mice. It also eats big insects, birds, and snakes.

Peregrine Falcon

The primary diet of this raptor is birds, including songbirds, large gulls, geese, and loons, which it captures in flight. Pigeons are its often-preferred prey in the city. It also eats shorebirds and ducks along the coast. Seldomly, it may eat insects, carrion, and small mammals.

American Kestrel

Also known as the sparrow hawk, the American Kestrel chiefly preys on insects like butterflies, moths, cicadas, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and beetles. It may also eat small rodents, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. This hawk species also feeds on spiders and scorpions.


The Merlin chiefly feeds on small birds like larks, quails, pipits, and sparrows that it captures in open country. It may also prey on large flying insects and small mammals like bats and rodents.

Hunting Techniques

What Do Hawks Eat? [Species, Prey, and Tactics] 2
Image Credit: roclwyr, Canva

Hawks, like many predatory birds, use a combination of techniques like soaring and perching to catch prey. These include:

Perch Hunting

This hunting method entails the hawk perching or sitting on a high vantage point as it scans the surrounding area for prey. The point could be a rock or tree branch. And once it sights the prey, the hawk often glides down to capture it.

Soaring and Stooping

This technique involves the hawk flying up high into the sky while it hovers around on thermals. It does this while waiting for potential prey down on the ground. Once it spots the prey, the bird usually stoops or dives down at incredible speeds to catch it.


The hovering technique is common among American kestrels. These birds usually hover while facing the wind. This allows them to stay motionless in a breeze and scan the ground below for prey. They then swoop down to seize the unsuspecting prey.

Cooperative Hunting

This technique entails the hawks hunting in cooperative groups for increased hunting success. It is typical among Harris’s hawks. Some birds are usually tasked with the role of distracting the prey as others take turns to capture it.

Ground Hunting

During ground hunting, the hawk usually flies low over the ground while scanning the area for signs of prey. And once it sights the prey, it dives to capture it.

Factors Affecting Hawks’ Diet

What Do Hawks Eat? [Species, Prey, and Tactics] 3
Image Credit: R Ramani / 500px, Canva

While a hawk may eat just about anything because it is an opportunistic feeder, several factors influence its diet. They are as follows.

Seasonal Changes

Prey availability may vary based on the season. For example, during summer, prey is usually available in abundance. Therefore, these birds may eat birds, reptiles, small mammals, and insects. But what do hawks eat in the winter? Some species may eat carrion, while others rely on winter-dwelling rodents like voles.


Hawks are acclimated to prey on specific types of animals available in their natural habitat. For example, hawk species living near the wetlands mainly feed on water birds and fish. In the desert they frequently eat snakes, lizards, and other small reptiles.

Prey Availability

When a hawk’s preferred prey is scarce, these birds usually switch to other types of prey that are in abundance. But do hawks eat seeds? The answer is no. These birds are strictly meat eaters. Therefore, even when prey is scarce, they cannot eat plants or seeds.

Age and Experience

Younger hawks usually prey on small prey like insects because they are less efficient hunters than their adult counterparts. However, adult hawks can quickly diversify their diet because of their hunting experience.

Competition and Predation Pressure

Hawks have a similar diet to other raptors, like owls. So, when the number of owls in an area is high, hawks may hunt different prey to minimize competition.

Meanwhile, when there is predation pressure, hawks may become choosier in the prey they target. Or, they could choose to hunt in different areas.

Human Impact on Hawks’ Diet

Human activities in the environment may have significant effects on hawks’ diets. Below are the activities that impact their diet.


Through urbanization, the natural habitats of hawks are altered or destroyed. Consequently, this may reduce the availability of prey in specific habitats.

Conversely, urbanization may generate new prey opportunities. For instance, pigeons love living in the cities because of the abundant food supply. Therefore, they can offer a reliable food source for hawks in the city.

Pesticides and Pollution

When prey species like insects and rodents are exposed to chemical pollutants like pesticides, their numbers may reduce. Also, pollution may affect the abundance and diversity of prey species available. In this case, hawks will be forced to hunt other prey types.

Climate Change

Climate change may lead to variations in weather patterns, which can affect the growth of plants that offer habitat for prey species. Consequently, this may affect the prey’s behavior, distribution, and availability. In such a case, hawks may need to shift their diet.

Conservation Efforts

Conservation efforts to protect and restore natural habitats will ensure hawks have more food resources. This is because prey populations are bound to increase.

Hawks’ Role in Ecosystems

What Do Hawks Eat? [Species, Prey, and Tactics] 4
Image Credit: ECummings00, Canva

As apex predators, these bird species play a critical role in various ecosystems. Examples of these roles are:

Population Control of Prey Species

By preying on small animals like rodents, insects, reptiles, and birds, hawks help regulate their populations. This helps ensure they don’t over-exploit other resources.

Indicator Species

Additionally, hawks can be used as indicators of ecosystem health. This is because of their sensitivity to changes in environmental conditions. For example, a decline in the hawk population may be an indication of reduced prey availability or habitat degradation.

Food Web Dynamics

Hawks are considered tertiary consumers in the food web dynamics. This means they feed on secondary consumers. Conversely, secondary consumers usually feed on their primary counterparts. So, hawks simply help regulate the populations of these consumers while contributing to nutrient cycling.


The geographic distribution of hawks and their adaptations for hunting varies from one species to another. Even so, the primary food sources for these predatory birds are the same. These include small mammals, especially rodents, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates.

However, because of their habitat differences, each hawk species has its preferred diet. For example, the red-shouldered hawk mainly eats small mammals like shrews and chipmunks. On the other hand, the diet of an American Kestrel chiefly comprises large insects.

Apart from habitat, some factors that affect the diet of different hawk species include predation pressure, prey availability, and seasonal changes. Also, human activities, such as urbanization, the use of pesticides, and climate change, may impact the hawk’s diet.

Knowing what hawks eat in the wild is important because of the role these birds play in ecosystems. These roles include regulating the population of prey species and serving as indicators for a healthy ecological system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *