What Birds Do Hawks Eat? (+ Protection Tips for Backyard Birds)

Hawks are known for their exceptional hunting skills and ability to prey on various types of animals, including birds. As birds of prey, hawks possess an agile and powerful physique, keen eyesight, and swift flight, enabling them to hunt efficiently. Their diets predominantly consist of small mammals and other birds, making them a significant presence in many ecosystems.

There are numerous species of hawks, each with distinct feeding habits and preferences. Some hawks, such as the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk, primarily feed on smaller birds like jays, cuckoos, and finches. These raptors are often found in urban areas picking off birds at bird feeders or in the wild, capturing their prey in midair or snatching them from perches. Other species, like the red-tailed hawk and American kestrel, have a broader diet that includes birds, mammals, reptiles, and even insects.

Hawks play a vital role in regulating the populations of their prey, maintaining a balanced ecosystem and serving as an indicator of overall environmental health. However, their presence near human activity, such as backyard bird feeders, may also raise concerns about protecting smaller, more vulnerable bird species from predation.

Key Takeaways

  • Hawks are skilled hunters that primarily feed on small mammals and other birds.
  • Different hawk species have distinct feeding habits and prey preferences, affecting various ecosystems.
  • Maintaining a balanced predator-prey relationship is essential for overall environmental health.

Hawk Species and Their Diets

There are many different species of hawks, with varying diets based on their prey preferences and hunting styles. Two major groups of hawks are accipiters and buteos.

Read Next: How to Keep Hawks Away from Bird Feeders

Accipiters’ Diets

Accipiters are agile hunters that specialize in catching other birds. This group includes species such as the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and northern goshawk. These hawks primarily feed on small to medium-sized birds, such as songbirds and pigeons. Additionally, they sometimes prey on small mammals like chipmunks, mice, and squirrels when the opportunity arises or during periods of increased rodent populations12.

  • Sharp-shinned hawk: With a body length of about 12 inches, these hawks feed mainly on small birds.
  • Cooper’s hawk: Similar in appearance to the sharp-shinned hawk but larger, at around 20 inches in length, they also prey on birds as well as small rodents3.
  • Northern goshawk: One of the larger accipiters, the northern goshawk can take down larger prey, such as rabbits and tree squirrels, in addition to birds.

Buteos’ Diets

Buteos, also known as broad-winged hawks, are characterized by their broad wings and soaring flight. Some common buteo species include the red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, and the Swainson’s hawk. The diets of these hawks are mainly focused on small mammals, such as rabbits, rats, and mice. However, they may also prey on birds, reptiles, and insects4.

  • Red-tailed hawk: These large hawks have a diverse diet, feeding on a wide range of prey, including rodents, rabbits, and even snakes.
  • Ferruginous hawk: The largest of the American hawks, these birds typically hunt small mammals and ground squirrels, as well as occasional birds and reptiles.
  • Swainson’s hawk: Known for their long migrations, Swainson’s hawks predominantly feed on rodents and insects, particularly during breeding season.

Types of Prey for Hawks

Hawks, being birds of prey, have a diverse diet consisting of various types of animals. These skilled predators mainly feed on smaller creatures and their choice of meal largely depends on the availability of prey in their habitat.


One of the main food sources for hawks are insects. They are abundant, easy to catch, and nutritious, making them an essential part of a hawk’s diet.


Additionally, hawks also consume small mammals such as mice, rats, squirrels, and rabbits. These mammals are equally accessible and provide a substantial amount of energy to the hawk.

Rodents in particular, make up a significant portion of a hawk’s diet. Gophers, for instance, are especially favored by some species of hawks due to their size and ease of capture.


Another notable type of prey for hawks is reptiles. Among these, lizards and snakes are the most common reptilian meals found in a hawk’s diet. Some species of hawks even specialize in hunting snakes, showcasing their impressive skills as predators.


When it comes to birds, hawks are known to target songbirds such as sparrows, doves, and even ducks. The size and agility of these birds make them an exciting and challenging meal for hawks. Occasionally, hawks may also prey on chickens and pigeons, especially when these domestic birds are readily available in a hawk’s environment.

Fish and Amphibians

When it comes to aquatic prey, hawks sometimes feed on fish, although this is less common as fish can be harder to catch compared to land animals.

Less commonly, hawks might feed on other kinds of animals such as amphibians like frogs, and even invertebrates like crabs. However, these types of prey usually make up a smaller portion of their diet as they’re not as prevalent or easily accessible as the other animals mentioned earlier.

Feeding Habits and Hunting Strategies

Hawks are known as raptors and are well-adapted for hunting. With their keen eyesight, they can spot potential prey from great distances, making them efficient predators. They mainly feed on birds, lizards, mice, rabbits, rats, and snakes, but their diet varies depending on the species and availability of food sources.

As opportunistic feeders, hawks are known to hunt not only in the wild, but also around human-made environments, such as backyards and near bird feeders. Some species of hawks, like the Cooper’s hawk, are known to target smaller birds feeding at backyard bird feeders. Rather than eating the seeds, these hawks hunt the birds visiting the feeder using talons and impressive agility to catch their prey in mid-air.

These skilled predators make use of various hunting strategies depending on the situation and the type of prey. For example, when hunting birds in flight, hawks rely on their incredible speed and agility to chase down and catch their quarry. They’re also known to use stealth and surprise tactics, swiftly attacking prey from a hidden perch or soaring above before diving down on unsuspecting creatures.

Hawks can be classified as either high soaring or low soaring hunters. High soaring hawks, like the broad-winged hawk, take advantage of thermals to conserve energy as they search for food from the sky. On the other hand, low soaring hunters, such as the red-tailed hawk, cruise close to the ground, scanning their surroundings for any potential prey.

In addition to hunting in the air, hawks are also known to target ground-feeding birds and small mammals. Using their strong talons, they snatch up their prey from the ground and carry it to a safe perch to consume. Some larger species of hawks might even take on poultry if the opportunity presents itself.

Distribution and Habitat

Hawks can be found in a variety of habitats and locations across the world, making them versatile and adaptable creatures. Their distribution spans across North America, as well as other continents, inhabiting ecosystems ranging from arid deserts to fertile forests.

In urban areas, hawks have shown a remarkable ability to coexist with humans, nesting on tall buildings and hunting for food in city parks. They have successfully adapted to living in cities, taking advantage of the ample prey found in these areas, such as small birds and rodents.

Despite their extensive range, hawks have specific habitat preferences based on their species. Some prefer wooded areas near water, while others thrive in open grasslands or semi-arid environments. The individual species’ habitat choice often correlates with their preferred type of prey and hunting techniques.

Seasonal migration is common among many hawk species, allowing them to adapt to changing food sources and weather conditions. Some hawks undertake long journeys between their breeding territories and wintering grounds, whereas others may make shorter migrations or remain in their habitat year-round. This broad distribution and adaptability to various ecosystems make hawks a fascinating and prominent aspect of the avian world.

Protecting Backyard Birds

Hawks are birds of prey and can pose a threat to smaller backyard birds. To protect your backyard friends, it’s essential to implement various strategies that discourage hawks from targeting them. One effective method is to provide shelter for smaller birds, such as dense vegetation or birdhouses. This allows them to hide and escape from hawks when necessary.

Additionally, you can use wire cages around bird feeders to keep hawks out while still allowing smaller birds to access food. Select a cage design with small openings that excludes larger birds like hawks. Placing bird feeders close to shrubs or trees also gives small birds cover to hide from predatory hawks.

Visual deterrents, such as reflective tape, shiny objects, or bird-scaring balloons, can be effective in keeping hawks at a distance. These objects may create an uncomfortable environment for the hawks, encouraging them to search for food elsewhere.

Windows can be a danger to your backyard birds as they may not see the glass, causing collisions and injury. To protect windows, use decals, window films, or string patterns that make the glass more visible to birds. This can also help deter hawks from areas where birds tend to gather.

Finally, taking your bird feeders down for a few days might be necessary to discourage the hawk if it has become a persistent issue. Hawks, as well as other birds, will eventually move on and look for food elsewhere when resources are scarce.

By following these steps, you’ll create a safe and enjoyable backyard habitat for your feathered friends, while minimizing the risk of hawks preying on them.

Predator-Prey Relationships

Hawks are an integral part of the ecosystem as they play a crucial role in controlling the population of smaller animals. As carnivores, they primarily feed on meat and exhibit a diverse range of hunting behaviors. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, with their choice of prey often influenced by factors like availability, habitat, and season.

One type of prey commonly found in a hawk’s diet is voles. These small rodents are hunted in open habitats, such as fields and grasslands, where hawks can easily spot them. Cats, another predator in the ecosystem, may also occasionally fall victim to hawks, particularly when they venture into the territories of these aerial predators.

Apart from voles and cats, hawks also target other bird species. In fact, some hawks have specialized hunting behaviors specifically for capturing birds, such as the skilled and agile Cooper’s hawk. Their predation plays a significant role in managing the balance within the bird community and maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

Eagles are another notable predator in the world of raptors, and they often share food sources with hawks. Although larger and more dominant than hawks, eagles tend to focus their hunts on bigger prey, like fish and rabbits. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for them to compete with hawks for certain prey species.

While hawks themselves are skilled predators, they too have predators of their own. Birds such as owls, especially great horned owls, are known to target hawks during the night by attacking their nests and offspring. Additionally, peregrine falcons, which are smaller yet faster flyers, might prey on hawk chicks or smaller hawk species.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do hawks consume smaller birds?

Yes, hawks are known to consume smaller birds, as they are skilled predators that are adept at capturing airborne prey. They primarily target songbirds, which are usually small enough for the hawks to easily kill and consume. For example, hawks have been known to eat species such as jays, cuckoos, and finches source.

Are pigeons part of a hawk’s diet?

Pigeons can indeed be part of a hawk’s diet. While hawks tend to prefer smaller birds like songbirds, they are opportunistic hunters and are capable of capturing and consuming larger birds like pigeons if they are available or in abundance source.

Do hawks feed on squirrels?

Hawks also feed on several small mammals, including squirrels. While their primary diet may consist of birds, they will also consume rodents such as chipmunks, mice, and squirrels if they come across them during their hunting expeditions source.

Are cats at risk of being eaten by hawks?

While hawks primarily feed on birds and rodents, they might consider a small, unattended cat as potential prey, particularly in the case of larger hawk species. However, it is not common for a hawk to capture and consume a cat – the risk is relatively low, but caution should still be exercised for pet owners in areas with significant hawk populations source.

Do hawks prey upon insects?

Hawks can indeed prey upon insects as a supplementary food source. While they primarily consume birds and small mammals, they are opportunistic hunters and may target insects, particularly large varieties, if they come across them while hunting for other prey source.

Are crows targeted by hawks for food?

Crows could be targeted by hawks for food in some instances. While not necessarily a preferred prey item for most hawks compared to birds like songbirds or smaller mammals, crows could still become victims of a hungry hawk either in a predatory situation or if the hawk were to target a weak or injured individual source.


  1. Nature Mentor
  2. Birdfact
  3. Britannica
  4. Birds and Blooms

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