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Why Do Hawks Circle? Facts Explained 2021

Sometimes you may have seen hawks circling above a particular area. What if your kid asks you suddenly dad! Why do hawks circle? What will you answer?


Hawks or any other predator birds circle due to two main reasons. One of them is when they are preparing to attack their prey while the other one is getting the most out of the thermals.

Yes, you heard me right, and mostly it could be the above two reasons but, in this article, I have explained some other facts related to hawks and other predator birds flying in circles. So keep reading!

So, why do hawks circle?

why do hawks circle?

Well, this is a very popular question to be answered. So let’s explore some facts related to predator birds flying in a circle during the hunt.

First of all, a hawk or any other predator bird can’t maintain its position when it stops flapping its wings. You may have seen a hawk just stop and drop when it is attacking its prey.

So, how did it manage to fly without stopping? Hawks and other predator birds get the necessary energy from the earth’s surface updraft during circling. And this happens due to two reasons: Thermals & Wind

Thermal updrafts can help the predator birds during hunting. The updraft provides the necessary energy to remain up in the air and will help them move forward at a faster pace.

What Does It Mean When a Lone Hawk is Circling?

Mostly, a hawk or any other bird will fly in circles while looking for its prey. However, it is not always the case.

In most of the cases, you might have seen a single hawk flying in circles. So what does it mean? Well, this could be because of two different reasons:

The first one could be that the hawk is simply looking for its prey. The second one could be that it has spotted its prey and now trying to focus on it.

Where Do Hawks Get Their Prey From?

It could be possible that the hawk is just hunting the prey which you are watching right now, but how do they always manage to find their pray? well, hawks are equipped with two different types of vision.

First one, they have an amazing visual sharpness which helps them to focus on the prey very quickly. The second one is that they are blessed with something called binoculars which help them see their prey from a distance very clearly.

How Does Hunting Work in Hawks?

Hawks will try to catch their prey in a very efficient way. First of all, they will look for somewhere near but elevated from the ground.

They will choose a point that is in between the prey and its cover. So when you see a hawk in this position it means that it is about to attack.

Most of the time, they will be successful in their attack because they will attack from behind. And, when it comes to the type of prey that they go for, then there is much difference among different species of hawks.

For instance, Red tailed hawk hunts mammals like rabbits and meadow voles while others prefer rodents like mice and shrews. Then some other species go after reptiles, frogs, and fish.

And then there are many birds that are their prey as well. So this is where the circle comes into play.

This is because they will fly around the prey to fear it out so that it could be easier for them to catch their prey without wasting much energy on chasing it down (which will also provide enough time for them to focus on their prey).

Why Hawks Will Not Catch Prey While Circling?

a closer picture of hawk looking at prey

The reason why they will not catch their prey during circling is that, while flying in circles they are losing some energy which could be utilized later on when they actually catch their prey.

So they can’t afford to lose any energy while circling because there is always a possibility that their prey could run away before they can catch it.

So, when you see a hawk in this position then you should know that the hawk does not want anything to do with you. It wants its pray and nothing else.

How Fast Do Hawks Fly While Hunting?

Hawks fly at different altitudes and speeds while hunting. The catch here is that, it depends on the type of prey that has been spotted.

As mentioned above, red-tailed hawk hunts over open areas like meadows or grasslands where it can easily see its prey from a distance. So, because of this, they will fly faster to reach their prey from a larger distance.

While on the other hand, if the pray is much closer and requires much more action and element of surprise then it will take its time and fly slowly until it is able to achieve its goal.

Why Do Hawks Make Circles While Hunting?

So, as we have mentioned above this is something that you will see in the majority of the cases. But why do they make these circles?

Well, as we said above there are two possible reasons for this behavior: The first one would be that since hawks only hunt by surprise and because of their sharp vision they want to focus on their prey before actually attacking.

The second one is that while circling they can also keep an eye on you which means that they are more than capable of protecting themselves from the threat if there was any.

So, in either case, circling will provide some advantage to them and it just makes more sense for them to do this than anything else.

What Are Circling Hawks Saying To You?

Now, what do you think of circling hawks? Well, there are different opinions on this. Some people think that it is a threat to them meaning that the hawk will attack them if they see them as a threat.

Others claim that it means that the hawk has chosen its prey and it is not interested in you because it does not want to scare its prey.

Of course, do not use this as a sign of approval for getting closer to the hawk. There is always a possibility that they might attack you especially if you get too close.

But, in most cases, while circling hawks are looking for their prey or protecting themselves from threats.

What Are Thermals?

a hawk taking advantage of thermals

The other thing that you might see them doing is using thermals. Thermals are rising currents of hot air which allows the hawk to fly effortlessly without wasting any energy.

And, when their wings find these rising currents they immediately take advantage of it and simply glide over the currents while keeping on an eye out for their pray.

But there is something else that you should know about thermals and that is the fact that, if there are many rising currents in one place then they can also use it to surprise their prey because their prey will not expect them from such angles.

How Are Thermals Made?

The reason why thermals are formed is that the sun heats the ground and as a result of this it produces some rising air currents. It is always better if there is some vegetation on the ground because that will enhance the heat which leads to stronger thermals.

So, these stronger thermals can carry up some lightweight stuff like insects and small rodents to the skies. And, as we all know hawks actually prefer this type of prey so they can lift themselves up and soar using this thermal until their prey shows up.

So, as you can see even though it might look like a simple flight through the air these hawks are actually doing a lot of work to stay in the air.

Where Are Thermals Mostly Found?

Now, if you want to see these thermals and circling hawks make sure that you are in an open area where there is not much vegetation on the ground.

Why? Well, because if there is too much vegetation on the ground then it will produce its own thermals which will prevent other thermals from forming meaning that you won’t be able to see them using thermals.

But in most cases, it is pretty easy to spot these hawks circling in the skies because they are typically done in an open area like a field or a farm.

How Do Hawks Use Thermals To Fly?

The reason why hawks use thermals while flying is that it is much easier to soar on thermals rather than flap their wings all the time.

And, as we already mentioned that if there are some strong thermals then they will be able to use it and glide until they spot something which they can hunt or protect themselves from a threat.

So, these flying behaviors of hawks might look and sound pretty easy but it is actually quite complicated and requires a lot of effort from them.

These thermals make the process much easier for them because they don’t have to flap their wings all the time.

How It Works

Whenever a thermal is formed an upper portion will be lighter than the other part which means that it will rise up.

And, if something like a hawk finds these thermals they will simply grab onto them and let themselves float through the air until their wings find another current to take them where they want to go.

So, this process allows them to stay in the air for a very long time which is why you will often see them using this thermal method while flying.

Of course, these hawks are typically used to finding their prey from the ground and chasing after it on foot so they won’t have any issues spotting their prey from above with the help of thermals.

Vortex Thermals And Hawks

Another type of thermal that is used by hawks is vortex thermals. These are basically small tornadoes that have a smaller range with a shorter amount of time.

So, these thermals will only rise up for a very short period of time but they are enough to lift something as heavy as a hawk in the air.

Of course, it is not easy to find these small vortex thermals but once you spot them then it will be much easier for the hawk to catch its prey.

So, as you can see thermals are one of the key factors in keeping these hawks airborne and if they weren’t for this factor they wouldn’t be able to fly so easily.

Of course, these thermals also require some pretty strong winds for them to work so it is not easy to find them in most cases.

That’s why if you want to spot some of these thermals then you will need to be in an open area that has little vegetation on the ground since that can disrupt the process of finding these thermals.

if you want to observe one of the most amazing flight behaviors in nature then make sure to find some thermals and stay around until a hawk finds it so that you can see them using these thermal currents to fly through the air.

Slope Soaring, Gliding And Circling Hawks

As we already mentioned thermals are one of the main reasons why hawks can fly so easily and glide through the air.

But, it is not the only reason why they can do this because even though they use these thermals to stay in the air they also employ another type of flight behavior called slope soaring.

In this type of flight behavior, a hawk will find a mountain or a hill near them and use it as a launch ramp so that they can keep themselves in the air for even longer periods of time.

So, why is slope soaring effective? Well, because these slopes are usually very big which means that the hawk has plenty of space to extend its wings and actually ride the thermal that it can find on these slopes.

This way, a hawk can stay airborne for even longer periods of time which is something that is quite important if you want to catch your prey from the air instead of just spotting them from the ground.

One Of The Main Reasons Why Hawks Fly So Well Is Their Wing Shape

Another important factor that has a great effect on the flight of these hawks is their wing shape.

And, what exactly makes their wings so special? Well, for starters, you should keep in mind that hawks are birds of prey which means that they don’t really fly very often.

So, this means that over time they have lost the ability to fold their wings behind them.

What does this trait mean? Well, it basically means that these birds cannot store their energy when they are flying through the air which is why you will see them using thermals in order to stay airborne for as long as possible.

Also, hawks need to be large enough so that they can catch prey from the air which means that their wings are also quite big.

Now, these large feathers come with a price because it makes them pretty heavy so during flight these hawks need to keep their wings open all of the time in order to stay airborne.

But, what is the reason for this? Well, if they closed their wings for even a brief moment they would lose the ability to glide and soar through the air.

The Eerie Screech of the Red-Tailed Hawk

A hawk sitting on the ground

So, what does it mean when you hear this sound? Well, their call can be described as a shriek that sounds like “kreeeer”. And they do this when they are hunting or feel threatened.

But it is also important to mention that their call sounds different depending on the situation. For example, when they are hunting the sound will be soft and quiet which means that you should not even notice them.

But, when they are feeling threatened then you will hear a loud shriek which will definitely get your attention. So, if this happens to you, do not get close.

What Do Hawks Eat?

So, what can you expect when it comes to their diet? Well, they are carnivores, and the majority of the time they hunt other birds like meadowlarks or pigeons.

Also, if we take into consideration that they live in places where there are a lot of small animals then it comes as no surprise that they might also hunt mice, rats, squirrels or other types of small mammals.

But if we want to make this even more interesting then we should mention that they are known for eating bats too! And yes – they do not mind eating bats at all.

Do Hawks Eat Cats?

Now, this is a question that you might have thought of. And the answer to this would be – no. Hawks will not eat cats unless they have been forced to do so because they were also being attacked by a cat and it was their only choice for self-defense.

But, if they can help it then they will never eat them because cats are not considered their natural prey.

So, the next time that you see a hawk circling around your house try to avoid thinking about it as something bad. All it wants is its dinner and there is nothing more to it than this.

Can a Hawk Pick up a Dog?

Now, this is another part of this question that many people tend to wonder about. The truth is that hawks will not pick up a dog either.

But, remember how we mentioned the fact that some might mistake them for attacking their prey and even go after pets? Well, if there is a hawk around and you do see it trying to get closer but not attacking then this might simply mean that it saw your pet as prey.

So, if you see a hawk trying to get closer do not try and stop it. What you should do instead is act like everything is normal because your dog or cat will sense danger by the way that the hawk is looking at them.

So, if it looks like the hawk is trying to attack your pet then try to take them away from the place where you are.

When Do Hawks Sleep?

Now, it all comes down to the fact that hawks are diurnal animals which means that they are active during the day and sleep at night. But every bird needs sleep because sleep is essential when it comes to its growth, physiological process, and well-being.

This means that if you want to know when they are sleeping then you should know that they will find shaded spots in which they can feel comfortable and just relax.

So, the next time that you see them during the day try to look for the places where they are sleeping because this is the best way for you to know.

Final Words

Why do Hawks Circle? It is simply because they are either about to attack their prey, or they might be doing surveillance or it might be due to the thermals. However, if you see a circling hawk in your area, you need to be careful and not disturb it otherwise it may attack you too.

Although the cases are very rare hawks can sometimes attack small animals such as cats, rabbits, etc, so you need to be extremely cautious if you are having hawks in your area.

That’s it for now and for more interesting information please check out my other articles.

Thank you for reading.

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