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How Much Weight Can Hawks Carry?

How much weight can hawks carry?

Hawks are surprisingly powerful birds! I have seen hawks dive from soaring flight to catch animals as big as a rabbit. Some species hunt smaller birds, squirrels, and other animals in backyards and wilder habitats.

After catching prey, they often fly away with the animal clutched in their talons. It makes you wonder just how much weight a hawk can carry!


Key takeaways:

  • Although hawks are not too large, they can carry impressive weights.
  • How much weight hawks can carry depends on their own weight and size. Bigger hawks can carry around 3 pounds worth of prey, but smaller ones stop below a pound.
  • As fierce predators, hawks are capable of attacking household pets too – especially the smaller ones.


How Much Weight Can Hawks Usually Carry?

Hawks are strong birds, but they do have limits. In general, the weight a hawk can carry depends on the species involved. They can’t carry away animals that are heavier than themselves, but some species do come close.

Big and hefty raptors like Red-tailed Hawks and Ferruginous Hawks are built to carry larger prey, and they do just that. For example, Red-tailed Hawks can lift a 3-pound Eastern Cottontail Rabbit. That’s around the same weight as the hawk!

Although both these hawk species catch a variety of small animals, they regularly prey on larger mammals, even catching Jackrabbits.

Hawks are fast and nimble, but they can't carry too much weight

Smaller raptors, such as the Broad-winged Hawk, carry much smaller animals like small snakes, mice, and frogs.

The powerful Cooper’s Hawk also catches animals that are significantly smaller than the raptor. They catch and carry prey that weighs anywhere from just 5% to nearly 40% of their own weight.

The related but smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk preys on lots of small birds that weigh much less than the hawk. However, they also frequently prey on American Robins, a bird that can be more than half the weight of the hawk!

On an interesting note, the big Swainson’s Hawk mostly eats rodents, insects, and other small animals.


How Big Is Too Big?

Since hawks don’t carry away prey that is heavier than themselves, there are a lot of animals that they don’t catch. That leaves out most dogs and cats.

However, you should certainly be careful with Chihuahuas and other tiny toy dog breeds. These small dogs are small enough to catch the attention of a big Red-tailed Hawk! The same goes for small cats.

Although most hawks won’t try to attack domestic cats, eagles are another story. If they see an opportunity, both Golden and Bald Eagles can prey on cats. This is yet another good reason to keep pet cats indoors!

Other mid-sized mammals that are bigger than jackrabbits tend to be too big for hawks. For the most part, adult raccoons, adult opossums, and other, similarly-sized mammals are off the menu. The same goes for deer, sheep, and other large grazing animals.

While hawks routinely prey on snakes, snakes larger than three feet are probably too big for any hawk to catch. There are exceptions, but hawks tend to leave such large snakes alone.

A number of birds are also too big for hawks to prey on, especially geese, swans, and herons.


Do hawks go after bigger prey?

Most hawks do not attack bigger prey. Even though an animal like a Raccoon would make for a big meal, they are usually just too big to catch. Even more importantly, it’s dangerous for the hawk to attack such large animals.

Even if a big Red-tailed Hawk did manage to kill a Raccoon, it would probably be seriously injured in the process or killed by the Raccoon. Similar to most predators, hawks take great care to avoid being injured by their prey.

Cooper's Hawk after a successful hunt

They have to be careful because if they get bit, scratched, or otherwise injured, the raptor can’t go to the bird hospital.

If a predator gets injured, it can’t catch prey and ends up dying from infection or starvation.

That’s not to say that hawks don’t occasionally attack bigger animals than they normally would, but it’s a rare occurrence. When it does happen, it’s because the animal is sick or unwary, and the hawk realizes it can easily kill it.

One exception is the Northern Goshawk. Although this powerful raptor routinely preys on grouse, jays, and other animals a bit smaller than itself, it can also take much larger prey. Rarely, this big hawk can kill huge Greater Black-backed Gulls and even Wild Turkeys!


Different Hawks & Hunting Styles

  • The Northern Harrier is a hawk that hunts by gliding low over open grassy habitats and listening and watching for prey. When it detects a small animal, the raptor quickly dives down to catch it with their talons.
  • The Short-tailed Hawk is a tropical species that soars high overhead, often with vultures. When it spots a small bird or lizard, it dives down to snatch it from the foliage.
  • In flight, Zone-tailed Hawks look a lot like Turkey Vultures! They act like vultures so they can sneak up on and catch small animals.
  • Swainson’s Hawks and some other raptor species take advantage of brushfires to catch prey. They wait at the edge of the fire to catch small animals trying to escape the flames.
  • Sharp-shinned Hawks only feed on small birds. As small birds have declined, sadly, the number of Sharp-shinned Hawks seen at hawk counts have also gone down.
  • Common Black-Hawks like to catch crabs and other slow moving prey. These sluggish hawks hunt by watching from a low branch and then swooping down on the small animal.
  • Cooper’s Hawks have become a common urban raptor. Parks and backyards with tall trees and plenty of squirrels, Mourning Doves, and other feeder birds are ideal for this species.
  • Hawks have fantastic vision. Red-tailed Hawks can spot a mouse on the ground as they soar 100 feet above it!


Frequently Asked Questions

How strong is a hawk?

A hawk is strong enough to catch prey as big as itself. Red-tailed Hawks routinely catch and carry away rabbits that weigh nearly as much as themselves.

What is the heaviest weight a hawk can carry?

The heaviest weight a hawk can carry is three to four pounds.

Can a hawk pick up a 10-pound cat?

No, a hawk cannot pick up a 10-pound cat. This is too heavy for any hawk species. However, it’s not too heavy for an eagle, possibly even for owls.

Can a hawk pick up a 5 lb dog?

No, a hawk cannot pick up a 5 lb dog.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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