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Do Hawks Hunt at Night?

Many species of hawks are primarily daytime hunters, using their keen eyesight to spot prey while soaring overhead. However, some hawks have adapted the ability to hunt at night as well. In this gudie, we will explore the nocturnal hunting abilities of hawks, including which species hunt at night, how they locate prey in darkness, why they’ve adapted night hunting patterns, and how moonlight facilitates greater nighttime hunting success. While hawks lack specialized adaptations like owls for round-the-clock hunting, their innate skills and changing energetic demands drive them to hunt under the cover of darkness. We’ll discuss how hawks have developed effective techniques for limited night hunting and how best to observe their cryptic nocturnal behaviors.

Are Hawks Nocturnal?

The simple answer is that most hawks are not completely nocturnal, but many species do exhibit some nocturnal behavior and will hunt at night when conditions allow.

Nocturnal animals are those that are active primarily at night and sleep during the day. True nocturnal birds include owls, nighthawks, and nightjars. Hawks, on the other hand, are diurnal raptors, which means they are most active during daylight hours. This is because hawks rely heavily on their exceptional vision to hunt, and daylight provides the best visual conditions for spotting and capturing prey.

However, some hawks have adapted the ability to hunt at night as well. Most notably, the Common Barn Owl has extremely well-developed hearing and also keen low-light vision to locate prey in darkness. Other species like the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Eastern Screech Owl also regularly hunt at night. Some larger hawks like Red-tailed Hawks, Harris’s Hawks, and Ferruginous Hawks may opportunistically hunt at dusk or dawn.

The availability of prey is a major factor determining when hawks will hunt. Nocturnal rodents like mice, voles, and rats form a substantial part of many hawk species’ diets. If these prey species are active at night, hawks may switch their schedules to capitalize. Moonlight can also facilitate limited night hunting by reflecting more ambient light. Additionally, some hawks may turn to night hunting because it encounters less competition from other raptors that solely hunt by day.

So while hawks are not naturally adapted for extensive nighttime activity, many species have developed some limited nocturnal behavior patterns, especially when prey is available under optimal nighttime conditions. Their innate abilities ensure hawks remain formidable hunters even after dark.

When are Hawks Most Active?

When are Hawks Most Active?

Most species of hawks are primarily diurnal, meaning their peak activity times are during the day. This matches up with when their prey species like small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are also most active.

The majority of hawks are most active in the early morning hours after sunrise and in the late afternoon leading up to sunset. These times maximize the available daylight while also coinciding with high activity periods for prey. The warm daylight hours allow both hawks and their prey to effectively hunt and forage.

In the early morning, hawks shake off their overnight torpor and soar upwards to survey for food from a high perch. The low morning light casts long shadows that can reveal camouflaged animals on the ground. Hawks like Red-tails, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks often catch songbirds and small rodents at this time.

Late afternoons are also prime hawk hunting times before sunset. Prey animals need to feed again before settling in for the night. Hawks often capitalize on swarming insect activity which congregates other species to feed. Soaring hawks can spot and swoop down on unsuspecting prey.

Some individual hawks adapt to niche nighttime hunting activity, particularly on moonlit nights or in urban areas with artificial light. But most species remain much less active after dark when their vision is impaired. Outside of migratory seasons, hawks typically settle down to roost 30-60 minutes after sunset. Their peak activity levels match the daily rhythms of most prey species under normal daylight conditions.

What Do Hawks Hunt?

Hawks are powerful raptors and hunt a diverse range of prey including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. Different hawk species have adapted to hunt different types of prey based on their size, habitat, and hunting strategies.

Small hawks like Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks are adept at catching songbirds. Their short wings and long tails give them agility to pursue smaller bird species through dense vegetation. Sharp-shins especially target feeder birds like finches and sparrows.

Larger Buteo hawks like Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks frequently hunt small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, mice, and voles. Their longer wings are built for soaring and spotting prey in open habitats.

Swainson’s Hawks migrate huge distances to hunt insects like grasshoppers and dragonflies, which can emerge in swarms. Swainson’s will even opportunistically scavenge injured waterfowl or fish stranded in drying wetlands.

Northern Goshawks inhabit forested areas and use quick bursts of speed to capture nimble prey like grouse, woodpeckers, and jays by surprise. Harris’s Hawks in the Southwest hunt cooperatively in packs to wear down rabbits and hares.

Ospreys are highly specialized fisher hawks, using their talons to snag fish near the water’s surface. Other raptors like Bald Eagles scavenge carrion but also hunt ducks, turtles, rabbits and other larger prey.

In all cases, a hawk’s hunting strategy and food sources depend on its size, habitat, flying technique and other adaptations for ambushing its preferred prey. This ensures a wide variety of food sources to sustain overall raptor biodiversity.

How do Hawks Hunt at Night?

How do Hawks Hunt at Night?

While most hawks hunt during the day, some species have adapted techniques for limited hunting at night when conditions allow.

Nocturnal hunters like owls have specialized adaptations like sensitive night vision, silent flight, and acute hearing to locate prey in darkness. Hawks lack these adaptations, but can still hunt at night opportunistically.

One strategy is to rely on moonlight. Dim moonlight reflects enough light for hawks to spot prey movement. Red-tailed Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks and Short-tailed Hawks all hunt by moonlight. The extra ambient light gives them an important visual edge even though their night vision is far worse than owls.

Some hawks like Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls also benefit from light pollution in urban areas. Artificial lights around cities simulate daylight and allow the hawks to capitalize on active rodents.

Infrared heat senses can also aid limited night hunting. A hawk can faintly detect the body heat of warm-blooded prey like rabbits, rats, or songbirds huddled in vegetation. This allows them to target prey even in complete darkness.

Hawks may also utilize non-visual senses at night. Their hearing can pick up rustling noises made by prey. And their sense of smell, while not as keen as owls, can detect prey odors at close range under low light.

With these techniques, hawks can boost their chances of limited success hunting at night. But most species still overwhelmingly prefer to hunt during daylight hours when their exceptional diurnal vision gives them the greatest advantage.

Why Would Hawks Hunt at Night?

There are several key reasons why some hawks may hunt at night despite being primarily daytime hunters:

  • Access to nocturnal prey – Many small mammals like mice, rats, voles and rabbits are nocturnal and more active at night. Switching to night hunting allows hawks to target these prey when they are abundantly available.
  • Avoiding daytime competition – Many hawk species hunt the same daytime prey. Night hunting reduces competition from other diurnal raptors in an area, giving hunting hawks greater access to prey.
  • Energetic demands – Nesting and migrating hawks have very high energy requirements. Hunting at night provides extra opportunities to find food to meet these demands.
  • Limited prey drives adaptation – In habitats or seasons where daytime prey is scarce, night hunting becomes a necessary adaptive strategy to find sufficient food.
  • Bright moonlight – Full and near-full moons provide enough faint light for hawks to spot prey movement at night. This facilitates night hunting.
  • Artificial lighting – Light pollution from urban and suburban areas allows hawks to capitalize on rodents drawn to lit areas at night.
  • 24-hour prey activity – Some prey like bats and certain rodents are active around the clock. Night hunting gives access to these 24/7 prey.
  • Stealth and surprise – Darkness provides concealment and surprise for hawks to ambush unsuspecting nocturnal prey.

So the combination of abundant food opportunity, less competition, and improved hunting conditions during moonlit and lit nights drives some hawks to hunt after dark. This provides survival advantages despite their vision being adapted for daytime use.

Do All Hawks Hunt at Night or Only Certain Species?

Do All Hawks Hunt at Night or Only Certain Species?

Not all hawk species regularly hunt at night. Most hawks are diurnal hunters that rely heavily on vision and are not well-adapted for extensive nocturnal activity. However, some specific species have developed abilities and behaviors that enable successful night hunting to varying degrees.

Owls such as the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl are the most highly adapted night-hunting raptors. They have specialized eyesight, hearing, and silent flight to hunt in total darkness. Among hawks, the Common Barn Owl also stands out with excellent low-light vision and hearing to locate prey at night.

Certain larger raptors like the Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, and Harris’s Hawk exhibit more opportunistic night hunting behaviors. These species will hunt around dawn and dusk or on brightly moonlit nights when some light facilitates their vision.

Smaller accipiters like the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk rarely hunt at night. Their best advantage is stealthy pursuit of birds through dense daytime cover. Likewise, soaring hawks like the Broad-winged Hawk are strictly daylight hunters.

Migrating raptors such as the Swainson’s Hawk may exhibit increased nocturnal activity during migration periods when finding food takes priority over typical schedules. Nesting raptors may also expand night hunting to provide for energetic chicks.

In general, larger raptor species that naturally prey on nocturnal mammals are the most likely to display adaptive night hunting. But all hawks will take advantage of helpful moonlight, artificial lighting, and 24-hour prey availability to hunt when productive under limited nocturnal conditions.

How Does Moonlight Affect Hawks’ Night Hunting?

The presence and brightness of moonlight can have a significant enabling effect on hawks’ ability to hunt at night. While most hawks are daytime hunters, extra ambient light from the moon facilitates limited nighttime hunting opportunities.

During new moons with no moonlight, most diurnal hawks will avoid hunting as their vision is extremely ineffective in complete darkness. But as the moon waxes toward full, more reflected sunlight illuminates the landscape at night.

On clear nights around the full moon, ambient light can be bright enough for hawks to detect motion of potential prey. Their eyes take advantage of increased light from a bright moon to track and attack prey. One study found Red-tailed Hawk nighttime hunting success doubled on moonlit nights.

Even during half or crescent moons, the extra moonlight gives hawks a valuable visual edge over total darkness. Their vision is adapted for daytime use, but any moonlight enhances their ability to spot prey compared to nights with no moon.

Moon phase also influences prey behavior. Nocturnal prey like mice and rabbits are more active on brighter moonlit nights when they can see better too. This makes them more vulnerable to the limited vision of hunting hawks.

While artificial lighting near cities also enables night hunting, natural moonlight remains an important facilitator. A full or nearly full moon allows hawks to most effectively use their dim light vision to hunt at times they normally would not.

However, moon brightness can also work against hawks if it similarly alert prey to their presence. There is likely an optimal balance of moonlight for hawks to utilize their vision while still catching prey unaware in dim conditions. But in general, moonlight expands night hunting opportunities that would not exist in total darkness.

How Can You Observe Hawks Hunting at Night?

How Can You Observe Hawks Hunting at Night?

Here are some tips for observing hawks hunting at night:


  • Focus on open habitats like grasslands, meadows, and marshes where you can spot silhouettes passing overhead. Forests are too obscured.
  • Hawks frequent the same hunting grounds. Identify productive areas for daytime hawk sightings then return at night.
  • Listen for calls of nocturnal prey like mice, frogs, or rabbits to pinpoint active areas.


  • Plan night observation during a full or mostly full moon for maximum ambient light. Avoid new moon phases with no moonlight.
  • Position yourself with moon at your back to silhouette birds against the moonlit landscape.


  • Be set up at least an hour before sunset so eyes adapt to changing light. Stay until a few hours after sunset when activity declines.
  • Peak observation times are early night around dusk and pre-dawn around dawn during transitional light.


  • A high-power spotlight can briefly illuminate opportunistic night hunters.
  • Use binoculars for scanning wide fields of view and catching subtle movement.
  • Fast, short-exposure photos can capture hunting behavior without disturbing birds.

With the right timing, location, and optics, observing hawks’ cryptic nighttime hunting reveals a whole new dimension of their behavior not visible in daytime observation. Patient, persistent efforts will be rewarded with fascinating glimpses into their nocturnal lives.

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