Do Hawks Eat Birds? Yes!

Hawks are powerful predators that occupy an important niche in many ecosystems around the world. Their impressive hunting skills and sharp talons allow them to prey on a variety of animals, including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even other birds. So do hawks eat birds? The answer is a definitive yes.

Birds make up a significant portion of many hawk species’ diets. Hawks are well equipped to hunt, kill, and consume avian prey. Their incredible eyesight allows them to spot birds from afar. Their strong feet and sharp talons can swiftly grab and kill bird prey in flight. And their hooked beaks efficiently tear flesh and break bones. Let’s explore more about how and why hawks eat birds.

Why Do Hawks Eat Birds?

There are several key reasons why birds make up such a substantial part of many hawk species’ diets:

Abundant Food Source

Birds are abundant in most environments, making them a plentiful source of nutrition for hawks. There are often more avian prey options available compared to small mammals or other prey. Hawks can capitalize on this bounty.

Ideal Size

The size of many bird species makes them perfectly suited as hawk prey. Small songbirds, pigeons, grouse, quail, and other medium-sized birds are not too large for a hawk to take down, yet provide ample nutrition. Larger hawks can also prey on bigger birds like geese, hawks, and herons.

Vulnerability During Flight

When in flight, birds are vulnerable to attack from above by hawks. Hawks utilize the element of surprise, stooping down swiftly to grab unsuspecting flying prey. Their talons and beaks make quick work of restrained aerial prey.

Shared Habitats

Hawks and birds often share overlapping habitats like woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands. This habitat overlap ensures regular interaction and opportunities for hawks to hunt avian species.

Hawks Are Well-Adapted Predators

Hawks possess specialized adaptations that make hunting birds efficient and effective. Their stealthy flight, keen vision, grasping feet, and curved beaks all contribute to their prowess at capturing avian prey. Birds make for suitable targets.

Which Hawk Species Eat Birds?

Many hawks species around the world regularly consume birds as a substantial part of their diet. Some of the most common hawk species known to prey on birds include:

Sharp-Shinned Hawks

The small accipiter sharp-shinned hawks are agile woodland hunters that thrive on a bird-heavy diet. They use surprise attacks to catch songbirds, woodpeckers, pigeons, and even occasionally larger prey like grouse.

Cooper’s Hawks

Similar to sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks favor small bird prey like robins, jays, doves, and woodpeckers. These crow-sized hawks are adept at stealthily stalking birds in forests.

Northern Goshawks

As larger woodland hawks, northern goshawks prey on a wider variety of bird species. Grouse, waterfowl, corvids, pigeons, and passerines are all on their menu. They’re powerful hunters.

Red-Tailed Hawks

Common large open-country hawks like red-tailed hawks regularly eat doves, pigeons, quail, pheasant, and other upland gamebirds. They’re versatile predators.

Ferruginous Hawks

Primarily found in open grasslands and prairies, ferruginous hawks thrive on ground squirrel and rabbit prey. But they also opportunistically hunt grouse, quail, and young waterfowl.

Harris’s Hawks

Unusual among raptors for their social hunting, Harris’s hawks of the desert Southwest prey largely on rabbits and rodents. But they also hunt doves, quail, and lizards as available.

Red-Shouldered Hawks

These broad-winged hawks of eastern woodlands consume mostly small mammals, but also snatch up frogs, snakes, and an occasional songbird or duck when accessible.

Swainson’s Hawks

Field mice and voles make up the bulk of the diet for migratory Swainson’s hawks. But they also readily eat insects, rabbits, snakes, and birds when available on their travels.

Zone-Tailed Hawks

With their unique turkey vulture-like flight profile while hunting, zone-tailed hawks surprise and ambush unsuspecting bird prey like quail, doves, pigeons, and jays in the southwestern states.

Galapagos Hawks

Given their remote island habitat, Galapagos hawks hunt smaller prey than mainland relatives. Small rodents, insects, snakes and iguanas are common prey, along with finches, mockingbirds and other endemic Galapagos birds.

This is just a sampling of some hawk species known to actively prey on wild birds. Essentially any hawk species, large or small, will eat avian prey to some degree as the opportunity arises.

How Do Hawks Catch and Eat Bird Prey?

Hawks have mastered specialized hunting strategies and tactics to capitalize on the abundance of avian prey. Here is an overview of how hawks catch and consume bird prey:

Spotting from Aerial Perches

Hawks often scout for prey activity such as birds in flight while soaring at high altitudes. Perching atop trees, poles or cliffs provides a surveying vantage point.

Stealthy Still-Hunting

When perched or slow cruising at lower altitudes, hawks stealthily search for bird prey while remaining motionless. Once detected, they plot attack angles.

Stooping and Surprise Captures

From moderate or high altitude, hawks enter swift stooping dives to surprise and grab unsuspecting birds in flight using their talons.

Pursuit Captures

Some hawks, like Cooper’s hawks, chase bird prey through dense woods at high speed, forcing quarry into a mistake allowing for a quick snap capture.

Wing Spurs

Large buteo hawks often force prey to take wing, then knock birds out of the air using their legs’ bony wing spurs as battering tools.

Repeated Aerial Harassment

Highly aerial hawks like falcons persistently harass flying bird flocks, stressing and separating weaker individuals for mid-air captures.

Breaking Prey on Capture

Hawks use their powerful feet and talons to immediately squeeze, crush, and break the bones of newly snagged bird prey while still aloft.

Plucking Feathers

Once safely perched with prey, hawks methodically pluck feathers to expose skin for easier consumption. They’ll start feeding while prey is still warm.

Tearing Flesh

Using their hooked beaks, hawks rip and tear flesh from bird carcasses in shredded strips and chunks to swallow.

Dismembering Prey

Hawks detach and separate bird limbs and joints to access more flesh. They’ll strip every morsel of meat from heads, feet and bones.

Swallowing Food Whole

After stripping all edible parts, hawks swallow small bird prey nearly whole. Their digestive systems break down and dissolve feathers, bones and more.

Hawks are remarkably skilled and efficient at hunting, killing, and consuming avian prey. Their adapted tactics and tools make birds a centerpiece of many raptor diets.

Why Don’t Hawks Eat Only Birds?

Given how adept hawks are at catching birds and how plentiful avian prey is, why don’t hawks solely eat birds? There are a few key reasons:

Vitamin and Nutrient Variety

While birds offer rich nutrition, hawks require a varied diet across prey groups to obtain adequate vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects provide diversity.

Fluctuations in Prey Populations

Bird numbers can vary significantly between seasons and years. Hawks must remain flexible to capitalize on pulses of more abundant mammals, amphibians or insects when bird prey declines.

Competition from Other Raptors

Too much dietary overlap leads to direct competition. Eating some mammals, reptiles and amphibians reduces competition with eagles, falcons and other raptors focused more on birds.

Opportunism and Scavenging

Hawks exhibit opportunism by scavenging carrion when available. Scavenged food provides easy calories, though the prey type varies.

Prey Availability Across Habitats

Different habitats offer different prey bases. Hawks in open country focus more on rodents than forest hawks. Diet variations match habitat-specific prey accessibility.

Prey Preferences Between Hawk Species

Hawk species exhibit nuanced preferences for certain prey types and sizes based on factors like size, agility and typical habitat. Red-tailed hawks eat fewer birds than the more agile Cooper’s hawk.

While birds make up a significant portion of most hawks’ diets, remaining flexible and opportunistic across prey types is key to survivorship for these formidable aerial predators.

What Kinds of Birds Do Hawks Prey On?

Hawks prey on a wide diversity of wild bird species. The sizes and types of birds eaten depends heavily on the size, hunting habitat, and preferences of each hawk species. But some patterns emerge in preferred avian prey:


Small passerine songbirds like sparrows, warblers, and wrens offer quick calories for small hawk species like sharp-shinned hawks. Ambush tactics catch birds off guard.


Cavity-nesting woodpeckers provide meaty meals for forest hawks when caught out drilling for food. Their shorter wings hinder escape from accipiters.

Pigeons and Doves

Abundant city pigeons are a perfect size for urban-dwelling hawk species like peregrine falcons. Mourning doves are key prey for rural red-tailed hawks.

Quail and Pheasant

Ground-dwelling upland gamebirds like quail and pheasant provide hearty nutrition for open-country hawks like ferruginous hawks and Harris’s hawks.

Grouse and Ptarmigan

Plump, chicken-like grouse and ptarmigan make a frequent meal for northern forest-dwelling hawks like goshawks. Their ground nesting habits make them vulnerable.

Waterfowl Ducklings

Fuzzy duck and goose broods offer enticing, easy-to-catch meals for larger hawks able to swoop in and snatch swimming ducklings.


Intelligent crows, ravens, jays, magpies and nutcrackers are common prey for accipiters and buteos when snatched unawares off perches.


Even highly skilled nocturnal raptors like screech owls sometimes show up as the prey rather than the predator when caught out by hungry hawks.

Other Raptors

Hawks are well known for predating smaller raptors including kestrels, kites, harriers, and even smaller hawk species when possible.

From tiny sparrows to ducklings and owls, hawks are skilled hunters of many common wild bird species. Abundant and nutritious, birds offer critical sustenance for a diversity of hawks worldwide.

Are Hawks Dangerous Predators of Songbirds and Gamebirds?

Seeing a hawk snatch a bird at a backyard feeder or hearing that hawks prey on wild gamebirds, one might wonder – are hawks overly dangerous or destructive predators impacting songbird or gamebird populations?

Natural Population Controls

Hawks help control and regulate naturally high songbird and gamebird numbers as part of an intact ecosystem. Predators prevent prey populations from destructively overgrowing habitat resources.

Targeting Abundant Species

Hawks tend to catch smaller birds and gamebirds which have high natural reproductive rates and ample numbers to compensate for hawk predation pressure.

Focus on Easy Prey

Hawks cherry-pick easy avian prey like small birds, sick individuals, slower juveniles, and older adults. Healthy adults are more likely to elude hawks.

Opportunity Hunters

Since hawks are primarily opportunity hunters rather than specialists, they only occasionally target certain species when accessible rather than solely focusing on one prey group.

Fill Diverse Roles

As native predators, hawks help uphold the diversity and stability of wildlife communities through natural predation, scavenging and nutrient cycling roles.

Undergo Own Pressures

Raptor populations also face significant pressures like habitat loss. Maintaining intact hawk populations ensures they don’t overexploit prey resources.

Rather than being destructive, hawks tend to only take prey species that are consistently abundant and well equipped to withstand natural predation losses from generation to generation.

Ways for Birders and Landowners to Protect Bird Prey

For bird enthusiasts or land managers hoping to protect populations of vulnerable wild birds or gamebirds on their properties, some options exist:

Construct Raptor Deterrents

Placement of owl decoys, reflective ribbons, and hawk kites can deter raptor presence and hunting activities.

Offer Escape Cover

Thick underbrush, brush piles, vegetation mosaics and access to cavities/burrows helps give birds and gamebirds protective cover to hide from raptors.

Eliminate Visual Perches

Removing tall perches like dead snags and fence posts cuts down on a hawk’s ability to survey for prey activity below.

Schedule Feeding at Low Risk Times

Limiting backyard bird feeding early and late in the day reduces exposure to hunting hawks.

Install Enclosed Runs or Netting

Protective poultry netting habitats safeguard domestic fowl. Similar netted enclosures can protect gamebird release pens or pheasant raisers.

Supplement Raptor Prey

Increasing small mammal populations provides alternative hawk prey to divert attention from wild birds.

Harass Roosts and Nests

Discouraging hawks from establishing nearby nests and roosts helps keep hunting pressures lower in a given area.

With some creative management, deterrents, and habitat adjustments, it is possible to reduce avian losses while still maintaining functioning hawk predator populations.

The Essential Role of Hawks in Ecosystems

While hawks can seem like a nuisance or danger when they snatch a bird, it’s critical to remember the essential roles they fill in ecosystems. As predators near the top of food chains, hawks:

Regulate Prey Populations

Through natural predation, hawks prevent explosive growth of prey numbers that could lead to habitat destruction and species declines.

Enhance Prey Fitness

Predation acts as a selective pressure that improves fitness of prey by weeding out less fit individuals and leaving better adapted survivors to breed.

Stabilize Communities

The predation pressures hawks exert along with diverse food choices stabilizes populations and strengthens community resilience.

Redistribute Nutrients

Hunting activities move vital nutrients like nitrogen around environments through capture, scatter and deposition of prey remains.

Provide Carcass Food Sources

Leftover hawk-killed carcasses offer crucial food for diverse scavenging mammals and birds.

Shape Ecosystems Through Time

As native predators occupying their historical roles, hawks help maintain the long-term health and functioning of ecosystems.

Indicate Ecosystem Integrity

Viable hawk populations indicate robust food webs and habitat connectivity. Their absence may signal disruption.

Hawks play multifaceted roles in sustaining ecological communities through time – even if their consumption of birds and gamebirds seems destructive initially. Maintaining hawks strengthens ecosystem integrity as a whole.

Hawks Fill A Vital Niche as Predators

Next time you observe a hawk expertly plunge down to snatch an unsuspecting dove or see the leftover feathers of a hawk-ravaged grouse, remember that this is nature at work. Hawks fill an evolutionary niche honed over eons. As formidable hunters, hawks require abundant avian prey to survive and reproduce.

Birds of all types make up a substantial portion of hawk diets for understandable reasons. Abundant numbers, vulnerable habits, and ideal size make birds attractive targets. Hawks possess the specialized tools and tactics to capitalize on this bounty. Yet hawks remain opportunistic rather than solely targeting birds.

By integrating birds into their broad diet, hawks help stabilize populations and complete nutrient cycles. Their role as native predators strengthens entire habitats. So while it may be distressing to see hawks predating treasured songbirds or gamebirds, maintaining hawks as functioning pieces of intact ecosystems ensures community richness for all species – avian, mammal and reptile alike.

In the end, hawks eating birds is simply nature taking its course as part of the complex food webs connecting living things. It’s a vital process that keeps wild ecosystems healthy and thriving.