how do birds of prey hunt

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.

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.

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…

5. Perch & Swoop Hunting

how do birds of prey hunt


In the perch

Good spots are beside a wetland with a lot of grass or on the edge of a meadow.

If you notice a hawk perching in this manner for extended periods of time, observe it closely and note how long it takes the hawk to move. Although it may appear that the hawk is resting, this is frequently not the case.

This is one of the most prevalent hunting behaviors that will be used against your chickens if you keep them at home.

The reason for this is that perch

Though it’s not large enough for hovering, high-soaring, or low-soaring, the area is ideal for perching at the edge.

The hawk saves energy by waiting for voles while perched in the tree for extended periods of time.

For the kinds of backyard homestead habitats where people raise small animals like chickens, it’s the perfect hunting tactic.

Additionally, owls prefer to hunt in this manner (you can read more about it in my article on why owls bob their heads).

Aerial pursuit is a swift hunting technique employed by accipiters, or extremely agile hawks, such as Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks.

This kind of hunting is popular in deep forests where agility and quickness are key to success.

This implies that, in contrast to the other styles we’ve looked at, it’s a very different habitat.

This method of hunting primarily catches birds, which is quite an accomplishment considering how swift and agile songbirds are.

Aerial pursuit hunting works particularly well in mixed environments, or even in the middle of a dense forest, as opposed to the previous hunting spots, which were typically in open areas with long visibility distances.

Here, things move very quickly, so even a slight blink during an attack could cause you to miss the entire hunt!

When a stalking hawk approaches, songbirds will quickly flee into the bushes, emitting high-pitched alarm calls before going silent.

Since aerial pursuit is one of the most prevalent forms of hunting behavior in any typical suburban or urban backyard, it’s an excellent chance to learn bird language!

As if the hawks’ hunting techniques described above weren’t intriguing enough, let’s move on to cooperative 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 entails one hawk entering a region and frightening the surrounding animals into fleeing in a panic while another hawk waits just in front 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.

There are cooperative hunting behaviors common to all species of hawks.

My own experience has shown me that this can even go as far as wake-feeding off the disturbance habits of completely unrelated animal species, such as foxes.

There was a time I saw a red fox hunting and saw a Northern Harrier catching voles that were being driven out by the disturbance wave!

This is a fantastic illustration of the extraordinary hunting intelligence that hawks possess, even though it’s unlikely that the fox was voluntarily assisting the hawk to make this possible.

3. Hover & Pounce Hunting

In the hover

The hawk will then stop where it is and use its quick wing flaps to maintain its position, allowing it to hover above the ground.

The hawk will stay in this posture for a few seconds before swooping down to attack the unwary victim, which is probably a small animal like a rat or vole.

The best hawks for this type of hunting are those with reasonable flying skills, good mobility, and effective wings designed for frequent flapping.

Keep an eye out for this particular hunting technique used by ferruginous and rough-legged hawks.

This hunting technique intrigues me in part because it resembles an aerial version of perch.

The most common hunting technique used by falcons—which, despite common misconceptions, are not hawks—is stooping!

Although they are sometimes mistaken for hawks, falcons are a distinct kind of aerial predator, so it is important to talk about their hunting techniques in this article.

When an avian predator stoops, it means it soars high into the sky and then descends at breakneck speed to feed on other birds.

This offers the crucial element of surprise along with such incredible speed that it defeats even the most cautious birds.

Usually, the target is killed by the incredible impact of the falcon’s feet while it is still in the air. The falcon will then either follow the victim to the ground or stoop down once more to catch it mid-air.

Smaller birds’ only line of defense against a skillfully performed stoop is to congregate in sizable flocks and hope the falcon doesn’t pick you.

This is most likely one of the explanations for why common prey birds, such as starlings, congregate in extraordinarily large flocks at dusk and start murmuring as a kind of collective “defense in numbers.”

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Ospreys are strong birds as well, but they only pursue fish. Ospreys can’t just eat their catch by floating in the water, so their ability to shoot themselves back into the air while clinging to a wriggling fish is quite helpful. Due to their enormous talons, ospreys and eagles can both latch onto their prey and hold on for dear life. When facing such formidable foes, large prey seldom has a chance. Okay, that takes care of the raptors I wanted to discuss today. When you see a vulture soaring overhead or a hawk perched, consider how these animals are designed to hunt. Gaining an understanding of how raptors are adapted to target particular prey will improve your skills as a birdwatcher and naturalist.

Buteos don’t need to be very fast, but they do need powerful talons in order to hold onto squirmy mammals. However, the true difficulty for these birds lies in identifying their prey, which scuttles around concealed in the grass. And for that, they need excellent vision.

All raptors, I believe, possess a self-evident coolness, but they all approach the task of locating food in quite different ways. It’s true that each of these birds has evolved to become uniquely suited to prey selection, and understanding the differences between the various raptor groups will aid in your ability to locate and recognize them in the field.

A field guide is not necessary for an amateur birdwatcher to understand the appeal of raptors. The “rebels” of the birding world are meat-eating birds, such as hawks, falcons, kites, eagles, and others, who rule their territories with confidence and abandon, making smaller animals cower and run for cover.


How do hawks hunt prey?

Hawks hunt by perching on tall tree branches. When they see their prey on the ground, hawks will fly down and grab their prey with their sharp talons. Hawks can grab and carry an animal that is three times larger than their own body.

How do raptors hunt?

Their sharp talons and strong feet capture and secure their prey. The hooked upper beak allows them to break into their prey and tear off small, bite- sized pieces. The large eyes of raptors take up 25 to 67 percent of their skulls depending on the species.

Do birds of prey hunt alone?

We tend to think of raptors as solitary hunters, and for the most part that’s true. Unfortunately for the cottontails and jackrabbits of the American Southwest, however, Harris’s Hawks hunt in packs, like wolves with wings. They aren’t the only birds of prey known to team up.

How do falcons hunt prey?

Perhaps its most famous hunting technique is the dive. The falcon closes its feet, and uses them to knock the prey out of the sky. When not stooping after its prey, Peregrine Falcons go after their quarry in a swift aerial chase, flapping their wings furiously in hot pursuit of a meal.