Hawks and owls are two of the most common raptors in North America. Two species in particular, the red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, live in the same geographic ranges and are similar in size.
When these two species compete for resources and territory, which is more likely to win the fight?
Hawks and owls are similar in size. Owls are heavier, but hawks are a lot faster. Thus, hawks can generate a greater impact force. Owls have large talons and a stronger grip. They also rely on their sensitive hearing to locate prey or potential threats in complete darkness. Both hawks and owls have chances to win, and the result largely depends on the circumstances.
Who Would Win A Fight?
As two birds of prey living in the same geographic ranges, hawks and owls have plenty of chances to compete for resources or territory.
Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls are similar in size, even though owls are slightly shorter than the hawks. Nevertheless, they are heavier and have sharp, long claws that can fight off hawks.
Hawks may have shorter claws, but they are about three times faster in flight than owls.
They catch prey by plummeting from the sky and striking it with incredible force. In fact, their strike force is about two times that of owls.
Owls may generate a weaker impact force, but they have a stronger grip – about two times the grip force of hawks. This enables them to lift prey about two times heavier than their own weight.
These two birds also use unique assets to win a fight. Hawks have excellent vision, but owls have exceptional hearing that can help them sense danger in the dark.
Due to the unique skill sets and force balance between the two, both raptors have about the same chances of winning the fight.
15 Differences Between Hawks And Owls
The table below shows a quick list of strength differences and facts between hawks and owls*:
|18 to 26 inches
|17 to 25 inches
|1.5 to 3.5 pounds
|2.6 to 5.5 pounds
|45 to 52 inches
|36 to 60 inches
|Speed (in flight; diving)
|Up to 480 lb.-ft./s
|Up to 275 lb.-ft./s
|Approx. their own weight
|Approx. two times their own weight
|Small mammals and birds
|North to Central America
|North to South America
|Open areas with elevated perches
|Interspersed areas of woodland and open fields
*Data in the table is sourced from scientific journals, research papers, wildlife magazines, and other official sources. For comparison purposes, we considered the red-tailed hawk and great horned owl species, which are similar in size and occur in the same geographic ranges.
The impact force is calculated by multiplying the flight speed by the heaviest weight mentioned for each species.
Hawks and owls are both raptors, but they belong to different families and couldn’t be more different from one another.
Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are members of the Accipitridae family. This family also includes species like kites and eagles.
The Buteo genus includes 31 species, each of them further divided into subspecies for a total of 270 hawk types.
Great horned owls belong to the Strigidae family, the largest of the two accepted owl families with about 190 species in 25 genera.
Belonging to different families, owls and hawks are very different in appearance. Yet, they are about the same size.
However, the most important difference size-wise is the length of their legs.
Both hawks and owls rely on their hind limb biomechanics, including size and grip force, to catch prey.
Owls have longer and stronger legs than hawks, and this difference could give them an advantage in a fight.
The first important difference between owls and hawks is their weight.
This heft difference is likely the result of different behaviors and hunting techniques. Hawks typically stand on high perches or circle over fields in search of prey. They fly high into the air, then plummet onto the prey.
A study on the altitude of bird migration showed that migrating hawks in New York, New Jersey, and Texas do most of their soaring at altitudes between 984 and 2,952 feet.
Meanwhile, owls fly at an altitude between 160 and 330 feet.
Both species exhibit reversed sexual dimorphism, which means that females are larger, heavier, and stronger than males.
Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls are similar in size and wingspan alike, even though owls can have bigger wings.
The long wingspan of both of these species enables them to soar on wind currents and save energy during flight.
Another similarity between hawks and owls is the flying speed.
Great horned owls can reach about 40 miles per hour in flight. Red-tailed hawks fly at speeds between 20 and 40 miles per hour.
An important difference is the diving speed red-tailed hawks can reach.
As mentioned, these hawks fly at higher altitudes than owls. When diving, their speed can reach 120 miles per hour, which is three times faster than the owl flight. This high speed enables them to generate a higher impact force.
Owls fly at lower altitudes, and for this reason, their diving speed rarely exceeds 50 miles per hour.
6. Impact Force
Talking about impact force, hawks definitely have the upper hand – they can hit with a force of up to 480 lb.-ft./s. (about 14 pounds of force).
This might not seem much compared to apex predators, but it’s a lot of force for a hawk’s usual prey and owls alike.
Due to their slower speed, owls can generate a weaker impact force of up to 275 lb.-ft./s., which is about eight pounds.
However, just because hawks have a more powerful hit, it doesn’t mean that they can take out an owl.
7. Talon Length
A point in favor of owls is the size of their talons, which are about twice as long as hawk talons.
A study on the interdigital variation in talon size in raptors reveals that hawk claws are about 1.3 inches long. Owls have longer claws of up to three inches.
In both species, long talons are essential for prey restraint and immobilization; however, the long claws also become valuable weapons when fighting against predators or other raptors.
Owls not only have longer talons, but their claws are also more curved. Combined with the greater leg force, owls can inflict greater damage than hawks.
8. Grip Strength
The grip strength is one of the most important assets for a bird of prey.
Raptors use their powerful talons to catch and kill prey. The strength of their grip also enables them to lift and carry it to their nesting spots. This is true for both hawks and owls.
The main difference is that owls have a grip strength two times more powerful than hawks, according to a study on the functional morphology of raptor hind limbs.
Specifically, red-tailed hawks have a grip strength of just under 200 PSI, whereas great horned owls can grip with a force of 400 PSI.
9. Lift Strength
Different from grip strength, the lift strength determines how much weight each bird can carry in flight – and what type of prey each of these species prefer.
Considering the stronger limbs, owls win this round.
While the actual lift strength of these birds was not yet determined, scientists observed that hawks can lift prey weighing more or less their own weight.
Owls can lift prey about twice as heavy. This enables them to hunt larger rabbits, opossums, skunks, and large birds about the size of ducks, geese, and even hawks.
10. Crucial Asset
While most mammal predators rely on their sense of smell and eyesight to detect prey, raptors can have different skill sets, depending on the species.
In a clash of clans, each bird of prey would have a unique advantage. And in the case of hawks and owls, these advantages are sharp eyesight and exceptional hearing, respectively.
Hawks have binocular vision and eyes that tend to rotate toward the front of the head, increasing the field of vision.
This adaptation enables them to spot prey from a distance three to four times greater than that a human would need to spot the same animal.
Unlike hawks, owls are nocturnal birds of prey, and sharp vision wouldn’t help much in low to no light conditions.
Instead, they use their acute hearing to detect prey. The abundant facial ruffs don’t only make owls look good, but they also have a functional role.
These ruffs channel the sound into the ear, helping the owl determine the prey’s location with incredible accuracy.
It goes without saying that these unique assets help hawks see potential intruders or predators, while owls can hear them from a distance and pinpoint their location.
11. Preferred Prey
Owls and hawks alike prefer small prey, such as mice, voles, and other rodents. Both species hunt small birds and reptiles too, as well as aquatic crustaceans, fish, and insects.
Thanks to the stronger grip and higher lift force, great-horned owls also go after rabbits, hares, skunks, opossums, and poultry.
Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls typically hunt alone, but only the owls are solitary.
Red-tailed hawks generally live in small family groups, even though they soar in flocks. They are monogamous, and once mated, a pair can remain in the same territory for years.
Great horned owls are monogamous too, but adults are typically solitary. Nevertheless, the paired mates remain in the same territory and find one another each year for breeding through a hooting ritual.
Males generally hoot all year round, whereas females only hoot during the breeding season.
Both species are territorial, and both males and females protect the nest and care for the nestlings. However, great horned owls generally only protect the territory closer to the nest rather than the entire home range.
Red-tailed hawks are more aggressive and territorial, protecting the entire home range.
13. Geographic Range
Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks can occur in the same territories.
The owls can be found in interspersed areas of woodlands and fields ranging from Canada to South America.
Hawks can be found in Canada, the USA, as well as Mexico, and Central America.
A difference between hawks and owls is the habitat, even though they can come across one another in the wild.
Owls typically prefer the open areas at the edge of forests or woodlands. However, they also take advantage of prey abundance near farms or agricultural fields.
Hawks are found in open areas with elevated perches from where they can survey the territory. However, they are also found near farms and agricultural lands.
15. Conservation Status
Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks are common raptor species in North America.
They have a “least concern” conservation status according to the IUCN, and their population numbers are stable.