Whenever you see raptors, few people will ever ask the question, “are hawks nocturnal or diurnal?” This lack of curiosity is undoubtedly because we mostly see hawks flying across the skies during daylight hours. This question is one among several that we seek to answer here. By the end of this article, the reader will know whether hawks are nocturnal or diurnal predators and appreciate more about their sleep behavior.

What Are Hawks?

red-tailed hawk
Are hawks nocturnal or diurnal? Hawks are diurnal birds of prey that can only see well during daylight hours.

Richard G Smith/Shutterstock.com

Hawks are raptors that belong to the family Accipitridae and are known as fearsome birds of prey. Despite their medium size, hawks are adept hunters, capturing their targets in midflight, trees, or open ground. Hawks are present throughout the world, but you will not find them in the icy landscapes of the Antarctic. These predatory birds are known for their excellent eyesight, sharp hooked beaks, and razor-like talons.

There are over 270 hawk species across the globe, and about 25 inhabit North and South America. All hawks are carnivores, feeding on small birds, mammals, lizards, bird eggs, and similar meals. The red-tailed hawk is a familiar sight in the Americas, with the Sharp-shinned hawk being the smallest and the Ferruginous hawk being the largest in these regions.

The Sharp-shinned hawk has a wingspan of about 17 to 23 inches and weighs between 82 to 115 grams. This small hawk reaches speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The biggest Ferruginous hawk has a wingspan of 48 to 60 inches and weighs approximately 2 to 4.5 pounds. Researchers have measured Ferruginous hawks reaching 150 miles per hour. But the question remains whether hawks are nocturnal or diurnal. Let’s find out.

Are Hawks Nocturnal or Diurnal?

Hawks live across almost all the continents except Antarctica. These raptors are world-class hunters that are active during daylight hours. Despite some people thinking that hawks are nocturnal, this is a common misconception. According to research, hawks hunt during the day, making them diurnal birds.

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Are Any Hawk Species Nocturnal?

Another mistaken belief is that specific types of hawks hunt at night. For instance, people may sometimes see red-tailed hawks hunting close to the twilight hours, around dusk or early dawn. Although these hawks are not nocturnal, they typically take advantage of the twilight hours to spot their favorite prey. But hunting at twilight does not make these hawks nocturnal. Instead, the red-tailed hawk is a diurnal bird that cannot hunt in complete darkness. 

Nighthawks are another type of hawk mistakenly thought to have nocturnal tendencies. This belief is also incorrect, perhaps based on this species’ misleading name. Nighthawks are also diurnal raptors, with the species spending most of its daytime spotting prey and striking from a distance.

Do Hawks Sleep at Night?

Since hawks are diurnal birds rather than nocturnal, they must rest at night to restore their energy for the following day’s hunt. Typically, you will find these birds resting in trees or cliffside nests at night. Sleeping in high places ensures hawks are safe from dangers such as predators or human interference. If hawks are forced to live in residential areas due to habitat loss, they may seek a resting place in abandoned buildings. Ultimately, hawks are solitary birds that prefer to live alone except in the mating season when they co-parent their chicks.

Hawks Are Solitary Birds Except When Not Co-parenting

Zone-tailed Hawk
Hawks sleep during the night but incubate their eggs during the mating season.

iStock.com/Ondrej Prosicky

Besides being solitary, hawks are also territorial, chasing competing hawks from their territory. But when mating season arrives, the male hawk chooses the nesting site, and the female builds the nest. Egg incubation can take over a month, depending on the hawk species. When co-parenting, the male hawk hunts, returning to the nest with food. The female hawk tears the prey apart to feed her chicks.

Once the hawklets are old enough to leave the nest, the parents will go their own way. Many hawk pairs are monogamous, returning to mate year after year in the same area. Both parents often incubate the eggs. However, once the eggs hatch, the female hawk does not allow the male to share the nest.

Hawks Don’t Have Good Night Vision Because They Are Not Nocturnal

While hawks may have excellent day vision, they do not possess good night vision. Since hawks are diurnal, they only hunt during the day. One reason for day hunting is that these predatory birds do not have a tapetum lucidum in their eye structure. This feature allows the eye to absorb more light, allowing the animal or bird to see at night. The tapetum lucidum is instrumental in helping nocturnal animals see at night. 

Instead, hawks can see well during the day because they have binocular vision. Their eyesight is about seven to eight times more powerful than humans. The birds’ ability to have a high resolution of color vision allows hawks to spot small objects and fine details. Their vision contributes to their precision and speed while hunting.

Most hawks can combine high-resolution lateral and binocular vision when hunting. Lateral vision helps to scan for prey in open areas. In contrast, binocular vision eliminates blindspots for better prey detection in closed habitats. Another reason why hawks are diurnal creatures and not nocturnal is that their prey is active during daylight hours.

Hawk Hunting and Diet

Large Ferruginous Hawk in attack mode with blue sky.
Hawks have high-resolution lateral and binocular vision to see their prey in detail and over long distances.

Stephen Mcsweeny/Shutterstock.com

Hawks are often small or medium-sized birds but are extraordinary hunters. These raptors feature speed, vision, claw-like talons, and premium hunting skills. Generally, these attributes mean hawks hunt whatever is smaller than themselves, in the sky or on land. Among the top targets for hawk diets are the following:

  • Rodents such as rats, rabbits, squirrels, or chipmunks
  • Small mammals
  • Fish
  • Snakes
  • Small birds, including blue jays, doves, or robins
  • Pets, including cats, dogs, or ferrets
  • Large flying or crawling insects, including locusts, beetles, etc.
  • Amphibians, such as frogs and toads
  • Small to mid-sized chickens and similar ground-dwelling birds

Other Non-Nocturnal Hawk Facts

You can never cover all the details of a species in one article, so it’s always interesting to read about their other features. Here are three additional facts about hawks besides the fact that they are not nocturnal but diurnal birds of prey.

  • There are no hawks in the Antarctic. A wide variety of hawk species are present on every continent except Antarctica. Factors such as ice conditions, wind speed, and air temperature in the Antarctic are not conducive for hawks. Besides, there is a shortage of food sources for hawks in this barren landscape. 
  • Red-tailed hawks remain monogamous for life. Studies of red-tailed hawks reveal the species as having monogamous traits. Once they establish breeding territories, these hawks do not migrate and stick to mating with one partner for life.
  • Female hawks are larger than their male counterparts. Unsurprisingly, and like most of the avian world, female hawks are larger than their male counterparts by almost 30%.
  • Female hawks lay between two and five eggs yearly. The female hawks are also the nest builders, often keeping the males at bay once the chicks hatch. However, most male hawks make excellent parents, incubating the eggs and sticking around until the chicks can fend for themselves. If all goes well, the female hawk may even lay a second clutch of eggs in one season.
  • Hawks live for a long time. Many hawk species can live for as long as 20 years.
  • A group of hawks is known as a kettle of hawks.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: What’s The Difference?

Navigate to Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: What’s The Difference? for further information about the nocturnal and diurnal phenomenon in various living creatures.

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