"Hawk" is a general term used to describe the entire group of diurnal (active by day) predatory birds. Worldwide there are approximately 270 species of carnivorous birds that comprise the order Falconiformes – the scientific name for hawks. All are classified as birds of prey, or raptors.
Sixteen species that regularly occur in New Jersey are described on this website. Although all hawks have certain basic similarities such as keen eyesight, hooked beaks and taloned feet, a wide diversity of forms and sizes exists among them. For instance, an American Kestrel weighs only 4 ounces, while a Bald Eagle can weigh 13 pounds – 52 times as much. Hawks are efficient predators. They catch, kill, and eat a wide variety of other animals in order to survive. This predation is not mean or cruel. It has been going on for millions of years and is, in fact, a necessary function which helps to maintain nature's balance.
Hawks are strong, powerful birds. Their feet are equipped with sharp, curved talons for capturing prey, and their strong beaks are hooked for biting and tearing flesh. Swift fliers, some hawks can attain speeds of over 150 mph when diving. Some species undertake long migrational journeys, traveling thousands of miles each year – a testimony to their strength and stamina. Their sense of hearing is excellent, and their eyesight the best in the entire animal world. Not only can hawks see greater distances than humans, but their visual acuity (the ability to see clearly) is eight times that of ours.
Hawks also see in color. In many animal species the males are larger and stronger, but in hawks the difference in size between the sexes is reversed, and females are larger. This sexual size difference is often appreciable. In some species, such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, females can weigh twice as much as males. Here in the northeast, hawks typically breed in the late spring or early summer. Most hawks pair for life, but if one partner dies, the other will quickly find a new mate. Some pairs remain together year round; others may separate after the breeding season. The allegiance to the breeding site is strong, however, and even those that migrate or disperse will usually return to the same nesting territory and the same mate each year.
Large hawks lay only one or two eggs each year, small hawks from three to five. Incubation takes three to six weeks, depending on the species. After hatching, the young hawks "grow up" very quickly. Small hawks, like Kestrels and Sharp-shinned, grow to full size in one month; large species, like eagles, are full grown in only 11 weeks. The young leave the nest (fledge) at this time, but often remain with their parents for several more weeks before attaining total independence.
All hawks are protected by state and federal laws. It is illegal to capture or kill a hawk, or to possess a hawk, alive or dead, without the proper permits from both the State of New Jersey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because they are predators, hawks have historically been regarded by many people as vermin. In the past, they were seen as wanton killers – cruel and harmful creatures. Fortunately, with our increased ecological knowledge we now realize that hawks are neither harmful nor cruel. They are, like all living things, important parts of a diverse and intricate natural world. The protection of that natural world is of paramount importance to their well-being, and to ours.