11 Hawks in California

11 Hawks in California

Hawks are birds of prey that can turn heads anywhere they fly.

What exactly is a hawk, and how do they differ from other birds of prey?

Hawks make up some of the birds in the family Accipitridae, even birds without ‘hawk’ in their name such as buzzards.

Confusingly, some birds who aren’t typically considered hawks are commonly referred to as such, like the Peregrine Falcon’s common name of sparrowhawk. Hawks have historically been considered among the world’s most intelligent birds. They’re also among some of the world’s most useful – falconry, or the keeping of birds of prey, was previously known as hawking.

Captive hawks can be used for hunting, disturbing flocks of pigeons around national monuments, and removal of invasive species.

The massive state of California is well known as a home to a diverse array of habitats & animals that dwell in them. California’s collection of native wildlife is certainly impressive, and includes many endangered or rare animals.

Among the native fauna you can spot in the sunny state of California is the Leatherback Sea Turtle and the California Condor – while this bird isn’t a hawk, they’re another interesting bird of prey whose recovery story is inspiring. California’s diverse array of hawks is just as interesting.

California’s varying environments, from beaches to mountains, provide a home for eleven hawk species among the state’s diverse cast of resident birds of prey. This guide provides a look at each of California’s hawk species & how to find them.

1. Sharp-shinned Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
  • Length: 23 cm (9.1 in) – 37 cm (15 in)
  • Weight: 82 to 219 g (2.9 to 7.7 oz)
  • Wingspan: 58 to 68 cm (23 to 27 in)
  • Lifespan: 5-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, affectionately known by many simply as the Sharpie, is a small hawk found throughout much of the Americas. The male of this species, which is up to 30% smaller than females of the same species, is the smallest hawk of US and Canada.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The Sharp-shinned Hawk feeds on a variety of small prey, but one of their favorite meals is small birds. The largest recorded bird caught by a Sharp-shinned Hawk was a 1.2lb Ruffed Grouse.

Outside of their favorite foods, these agile small hawks can feed on everything from a house mouse to a dragonfly. 

2. Cooper’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Length:  35 to 50 cm (15 to 20 in)
  • Weight:  7.8-14.5 oz (220-410 g)
  • Wingspan: 62 to 99 cm (24 to 39 in)
  • Lifespan: 5-10 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Cooper’s Hawk, unlike the previous Sharp-Shinned Hawk, is one of North America’s largest hawk species. It’s no surprise that, with a larger build than most other hawks, they’re skilled at bringing down larger prey than similar species.

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

This habit of catching large prey earned them the common nicknames chicken hawk and hen hawk; if given the opportunity, Cooper’s Hawks are skilled at picking off domestic poultry.

Cooper’s Hawks are fairly common in California. You can expect to see them dwelling primarily in temperate deciduous forests.

They aren’t especially bothered by habitat fragmentation, and you can often spot this hawk along roadsides or perching on utility poles. While Cooper’s Hawk is a migratory bird of prey, they remain in some portions of the state year-round.

3. Northern Goshawk

  • Scientific name: Falco columbarius
  • Length: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in)
  • Weight: 357 – 2,200 g (0.787 to 4.850 lb)
  • Wingspan: 89 to 105 cm (35 to 41 in)
  • Lifespan: 7-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Northern Goshawk is a beautiful yet elusive bird that’s a treat for any birdwatcher to spot. Highly territorial, the Northern Goshawk is almost always solitary, unless a part of a pair with their mate.

The Northern Goshawk is agile in flight, particularly during short-distance chases; their relatively long tail helps steady them. The process of hunting is usually a quick one for the Northern Goshawk; chases in pursuit of their next meal rarely surpass 15 minutes.

Northern goshawk

Despite their solitary nature, Northern Goshawks who are part of a breeding pair have been recorded ‘tandem hunting’, or working together to successfully hunt.

The Northern Goshawk is an accomplished hunter; while much of their diet is smaller birds and mammals such as voles and rats, they have also been recorded taking impressive prey such as pheasants, hares, and even spiny porcupines.

Goshawks also periodically take carrion as food, and have been recorded consuming already-deceased sheep and goats.

4. Red-shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific name:  Buteo lineatus
  • Length: 38 to 58 cm (15 to 23 in)
  • Weight: 550-700 g (1.21-2.05 lb)
  • Wingspan: 90 to 127 cm (35 to 50 in)
  • Lifespan: 7-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

A common sight along the coast of California, the Red-Shouldered Hawk is one of North America’s most plentiful species of hawks.

Red-shouldered Hawk

These hawks are also a favorite of farmers and homeowners. They primarily feed on small rodents, making them an important resource for natural pest control. However, the Red-shouldered Hawk is sometimes displaced by their more aggressive relative, the Red-tailed Hawk.

This species is known for the characteristic rust color that descends from the bird’s shoulder across the entirety of its chest and belly.

They are frequently confused with the Red-tailed Hawk. However, Red-shouldered Hawks are more slender and agile, and they lack the Red-tail’s pale underside.

5. Broad-winged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
  • Length: 32 to 44 cm (13 to 17 in)
  • Weight:  265 to 560 g (9.3 to 19.8 oz)
  • Wingspan: 74 to 100 cm (29 to 39 in)
  • Lifespan: 7-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Broad-winged Hawk is a relatively small hawk species. Named for their relatively broad wings, which are distinctly tapered, the Broad-winged Hawk is distinct enough that even beginners at hawk ID should have an easy time spotting them.

Broad-winged Hawk

Adult Broad-wings have a stark pale underside marked with brown bars that’s easily visible in flight, along with a dark brown upper half.

This species has a wide range that spans much of both American continents. During migration, they form large flocks that can number in the thousands. These migrating birds are called kettles, and they are a sight to behold.

6. Swainson’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Length: 43–56 cm (17–22 in)
  • Weight: 0.5–1.7 kg (1.1–3.7 lb)
  • Wingspan: 117–137 cm (46–54 in)
  • Lifespan: 8-14 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Swainson’s Hawk is not only a beautiful bird, they’re prized as pest control by farmers. Also known as the grasshopper hawk or locust hawk, both of these names are earned from the Swainson’s voracious appetite for insects, particularly grasshoppers.

Swainson's Hawk

They aren’t year-round Californians, but they can be found here during the breeding season.

Swainson’s Hawk prefers open, dry habitats, such as prairies, pastures, and even desert. These hawks prey on insects and small mammals, both of which are common in these environments.

They are known to be talented hunters of the ground squirrel, which is common in the same dry habitats.  While Swainson’s Hawk prefers small prey generally, they have been to take larger birds such as mallard ducks and grouse.

7. Red-tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Length: 45 to 60 cm (18 to 24 in)
  • Weight: 690 to 1,300 g (1.52 to 2.87 lb)
  • Wingspan: 105 to 141 cm (3 ft 5 in to 4 ft 8 in)
  • Lifespan: 6-10 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Red-tailed Hawk is most likely the bird you picture when you picture a hawk – they’re the most common hawk species in North America.

Red-tailed hawk

The iconic Red-tailed Hawk is also the provider of most stock ‘raptor’ screeches used in movies – they frequently fill in as vocals for the Bald Eagle, as the eagle’s screech is so high-pitched some audiences don’t find it believable!

This species, like some other hawks on this list, is also sometimes known informally as a ‘chickenhawk’.

The Red-tailed Hawk feeds on many small rodents as a main staple of their diet. However, they are also crucial predators of some invasive species. The Red-tailed Hawk commonly feeds from flocks of European Starlings, which are extremely invasive and can be detrimental to native birds.

Some building owners encourage hawks’ presence for this reason, as otherwise the noisy starlings may find their property to be a safe place to gather.

8. Rough-legged Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Length: 46–68 cm (18–27 in)
  • Weight: 600 to 1,660 g (1.32 to 3.66 lb)
  • Wingspan: 120 to 153 cm (47 to 60 in)
  • Lifespan: 8-10 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Known in the European portion of their range as the Rough-legged Buzzard, this hawk is a large, distinguished bird.

Rough-legged hawk

They are one of few birds of prey who hover in flight; typically, this behavior belongs to falcons, not hawks. While there are many variations in color for this species, they can be identified by their tail; they consistently have long white tail feathers ending in dark bands.

For much of the year, the Rough-legged Hawk dwells in cold tundra habitats; they winter in warmer areas of their range. This is when you’ll get a chance at spotting this medium-large raptor in the wild of California.

9. Ferruginous Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo regalis
  • Length: 51 to 71 cm (20 to 28 in)
  • Weight: 907 to 2,268 g (32.0 to 80.0 oz)
  • Wingspan: 122 to 158 cm (48 to 62 in)
  • Lifespan: 8-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Ferruginous Hawk is a large, powerful bird; as the largest North American member of the Buteo genus of hawks, adults of this species have few natural predators.

Ferruginous Hawk

This bird appears in ‘light’ and ‘dark’ morphs; light morphs will display a rusty upper body, while this coloration will be dark brown or black in the dark morph. Some describe this hawk’s screechy cry as being similar to the vocalizations of a gull.

Males and females of this species don’t have any differing coloration that aids in field identification. However, like many other birds of prey, the female is notably larger than the male.

While the prey taken by this species varies, one of their preferred prey species is the black-tailed jackrabbit.

10. Zone-tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo regalis
  • Length: 46 to 56 cm (18 to 22 in)
  • Weight: 565–1,080 g (1.246–2.381 lb)
  • Wingspan: 117–140 cm (46–55 in)
  • Lifespan: 8-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

This unique in appearance hawk is a pleasure to add to any birder’s life list. The Zone-tailed Hawk sticks out in a world of brown, rust, and gray colored hawks; this bird’s primarily black coloration is stunning.

Zone-tailed Hawk

The underside of this bird’s wings are barred with a lighter gray, giving them what appears to be bright silver stripes in the sunlight. The cere (fleshy area above the bird’s nostril) of this hawk, along with their legs, is a sunny yellow.

In flight, this bird looks very similar to the slowly soaring Turkey Vulture. Some have hypothesized this aids the hawk in getting close to its prey without disturbing it.

However, this bird doesn’t commonly feed on carrion. Instead, they take live prey including small birds, mammals, and lizards.

11. Harris’s Hawk

  • Scientific name: Parabuteo unicinctus
  • Length: 46 to 59 cm (18 to 23 in)
  • Weight: 546 to 850 g (1.204 to 1.874 lb)
  • Wingspan: 103 to 120 cm (41 to 47 in)
  • Lifespan: 10-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The handsome Harris’s Hawk is one of the easiest hawks to identify for beginners. With a deep brown upper body complimented by vivid rust-colored shoulders, this large bird of prey is a breeze to identify in the field.

Harris’s Hawk

This hawk is also frequently praised as one of the smartest hawk species. Unlike other birds of prey, which are almost always solitary hunters, Harris’s Hawk is known to hunt in small ‘packs’ to take down prey. This bird’s social nature also makes them beloved as a falconry bird.

Harris’s Hawk can be found in a variety of habitats. However, their favored dwellings are woodlands and semi-desert habitats.

They are not migratory birds, so you can enjoy seeing them in California year round.

Where to See California Hawks

Some people seem to have the good luck of spotting birds of prey easily. But, there’s many ways to increase your chances of a hawk sighting.

First, keep in mind that these species are often good at camouflage; quality bird watching equipment might increase your ability to easily spot a hawk.

Not sure where to start?

Many California state parks have safe trails designed for optimal viewing of wildlife; additionally, they usually have a guide to the species present at each park, so you can know what you’re looking for. Additionally, local Audubon groups usually have their own chapters, in addition to leading guided tours.

If you’re new to birdwatching, you may want to attend a guided tour for a little extra help. Tours are led by experienced birdwatchers, so they’re more likely to spot birds that newcomers to birdwatching might not notice.

If you’re looking for a bird that’s uncommon in your area (for example, some falcons are city-dwellers, but they might not be easy to find) a guided tour is an especially good idea.

Invest in a good pair of binoculars. While the cost of birdwatching equipment can be daunting, don’t get scared off. Many second-hand or thrift stores carry used binoculars, which can help you get started with a great brand rather than the cheapest options available.

Additionally, some libraries or birdwatching organizations will loan out or rent binoculars for a low cost.

If you’re just visiting California and don’t want to pack birdwatching gear for the trip, this could be a good option for you.

Want to encourage hawks to take up residence in your own neighborhood?

There’s several ways to encourage hawks populations to grow in your area.

For one, don’t use rodenticides. While it’s understandable that most of us don’t want mice or rats in our homes, rodenticide is not only a very inhumane method of pest control, it negatively impacts many predatory species.

Birds of prey like hawks, falcons, and others cannot discern poisoned and healthy rodents.

Predators who eat rodents who have yet to pass from poisoned food will become poisoned as well. As it is, hawks are one method of natural pest control, and poisoning birds of prey in your area will only increase rodent numbers.

It’s uncommon for hawks to use nest boxes, but you can try to attract them to your property. Leave up dead or decaying trees with hollows that can be used for shelter, as long as there’s no danger of the tree falling.

Additionally, providing sources of water can encourage hawks to not only bathe and drink, but visit the water in hopes of catching a meal.

Don’t provide food to hawks, whether it’s meat intended for humans or frozen prey intended for pets like snakes; this food is often not nutritionally complete for the birds. If it is accepted by the bird, it could make them sick.

You can also consider supporting a local falconry chapter or volunteering if you have a drive for hands-on experience with hawks in a safe environment,

Conclusion

California is home to a diverse variety of habitats, and many species ranging from the hawks mentioned here to endangered species like the San Joaquin Kit Fox and the Franklin’s Bumblebee.

California is a great destination for aspiring wildlife photographers or journalists, or just those with a love for the great outdoors.

Hawks serve an important purpose in the ecosystem. While hawks can be fascinating to learn about and observe, they’re also important to the health of their environments.

Hawks feed on pests that can damage your home, like common mice and rats, along with invasive species. They also keep other species’ numbers in balance, preventing a surge in numbers of any one species.

Hawks are crucial to the ecosystems they inhabit, and encouraging conservation for these big-in-personality predators leads towards a healthy ecosystem for all its inhabitants.

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2 comments
  • We saw a white breasted large hawk with a white underside to the tail. Dark feathers on back and varigated under wings. No Rufus feathers and appeared essentially like a black and white bird in photos we took. But far away, so you have to blow up the image and use a magnifying glass to discern it from the background vegettion. It was on the ground at the edge of small ravine leading down to ocean coves along the beach north of Fort Bragg California and close to MacKerricjer State Park. We haven’t seen it here before! The Northern Goshawk comes closest to what we saw, but the breast appeared white to us not stipled as in photo here. Wind was ruffling feather though so that might be why!

    • Lucky you! White feathers could be fledgling status & colored breast feathers will appear as Hawk matures.