Hawks in California: Soaring the Golden State’s Skies (13 Species Unveiled)




Hawks in California

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In the vast landscapes of California, hawks reign supreme as captivating birds of prey. From the iconic Red-tailed Hawk to the elusive Ferruginous Hawk, these magnificent creatures captivate our imagination with their aerial prowess and keen hunting abilities. With diverse habitats spanning coastal regions, woodlands, and open plains, California provides a rich tapestry for hawks to thrive and enchant both residents and visitors alike.

Join us on an extraordinary journey as we delve into the world of California’s hawks and discover the fascinating allure of these soaring predators.

Complete List of Hawks in California

  1. Red-tailed Hawk: The Red-tailed Hawk is the most popular hawk species in California and can be found throughout the state in a variety of habitats, including open fields, deserts, and forests.

  2. Cooper’s Hawk: Cooper’s Hawks are commonly seen in California, particularly in woodlands and suburban areas. Look for them perched in trees or soaring through dense vegetation.

  3. Red-shouldered Hawk: These hawks are frequently found in California, preferring mature forests near water bodies. Keep an eye out for them along rivers, streams, and lakeshores.

  4. Northern Harrier: Northern Harriers are commonly spotted in California’s marshes, wetlands, and open grasslands. Look for their low-flying, hunting behavior in these areas.

  5. Sharp-shinned Hawk: These hawks can be found in California’s woodlands, forests, and near bird feeders where they hunt small birds. Watch for their quick and agile flight.

  6. Swainson’s Hawk: Although less common than some other species, Swainson’s Hawks can be seen in California’s open, grassy areas during migration seasons.

  7. Ferruginous Hawk: These hawks are present in California but are less common. Look for them in open grasslands and agricultural areas.

  8. Rough-legged Hawk: Rough-legged Hawks are winter visitors to California and can be spotted in open fields, marshes, and coastal areas during that season.

  9. Northern Goshawk: Northern Goshawks are rare in California, but they can be found in the state’s mature forests, particularly in the northern regions.

  10. Broad-winged Hawk: While primarily a migratory species, Broad-winged Hawks can occasionally be seen in California’s deciduous forests during migration seasons.

  11. Zone-tailed Hawk: The Zone-tailed Hawk is a rare visitor to California. They are occasionally sighted in open woodlands and canyons.

  12. Gray Hawk: The Gray Hawk is a rare and localized species in California, primarily found in the southern part of the state in riparian habitats.

  13. Common Black Hawk: The Common Black Hawk is a rare visitor to California, primarily found in the southwestern parts of the state near rivers and streams.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo jamaicensis
Length 45–65 cm (18–26 in)
Wingspan110–141 cm (3 ft 7 in – 4 ft 8 in)
Weight690 to 1,600 g (1.5 to 3.5 lb)

The Red-Tailed Hawk is a bird of prey that is commonly found across North America. This adaptable raptor is known for its brick-red tail, which is most noticeable in adults from above or underneath. The diet of the Red-Tailed Hawk is very diverse, including small mammals like mice and squirrels, as well as birds and reptiles.

This hawk is often seen perched on poles or soaring in wide circles high above fields, forests, and highways. Its habitat is extremely varied, ranging from desert and scrublands to forests and tropical rainforests. Its call, a raspy, screaming kee-eeeee-arr, is often used in movies to represent any bird of prey.

Cooper’s Hawk

Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk 2
Scientific NameAccipiter cooperii
Length35 to 46 cm (14 to 18 in) /Female: 42 to 50 cm (17 to 20 in)
Wingspan 62 to 99 cm (24 to 39 in)
WeightMale: 280 g (9.9 oz) in 48/ Female: 473 g (1.043 lb)

Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey in the Accipiter genus, native to the North American continent. It’s named after the American naturalist William Cooper, and distinguished by its slate-gray back, red-barred chest, and rounded tail with broad white terminal band. It is similar in appearance to the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk, but can be differentiated by its larger size and rounded tail.

Inhabiting various types of woodland and forests, Cooper’s Hawks are agile predators known for their skill at chasing birds through trees, their primary prey being small to medium-sized birds. They also feed on small mammals and, less commonly, reptiles. They’re noted for their explosive flight pattern, consisting of a few rapid wingbeats followed by a short glide. Cooper’s Hawks nest in trees, and both parents share duties of incubating the eggs and raising the young. Their call is a distinctive, repetitive ‘cak-cak-cak’, often heard during courtship or when disturbed.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk
Red Shouldered Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo lineatus
Length15 to 23 in
Wingspan35 to 50 in
Weight1.21 lb- 1.5 lb

The Red-Shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, belonging to the Buteo genus, prevalent in North America. It is characterized by its reddish-brown shoulder patches, from which it derives its name. Other distinctive features include its banded tail and translucent crescents near the wingtips that are visible during flight.

Red-Shouldered Hawks typically inhabit mixed woodlands, often near rivers and swamps, where they hunt for a variety of prey, including small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and occasionally other birds. Unlike some other hawk species, they are quite vocal, emitting a distinctive, repetitive whistle that often gives away their presence. These hawks build nests high in deciduous trees where they usually lay 2 to 4 eggs. The pairs are monogamous, often maintaining their bond for many years and defending their territories fiercely.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier 2
Scientific NameCircus hudsonius
Length41–52 cm (16–20 in)
Wingspan 97–122 cm (38–48 in)
WeightMale 10 to 26 ounces (280 to 730 g)
Female: 11 to 30 ounces (310 to 850 g)

The Northern Harrier is a bird of prey that belongs to the Circinae subfamily and stands out due to its distinctively owl-like facial disk, slender body, and long tail. This species exhibits a low and slow flying pattern when hunting, often skimming just above the ground of open fields and marshes. The males are predominantly gray, while the females and young are brown with streaks of white.

Northern Harriers primarily feed on small mammals and birds. Unique among hawks, these birds possess an owl-like trait of using auditory cues as well as visual ones to locate and catch prey. They’re also known for their polygynous breeding system, where a male may have up to five mates at once, each nesting in different locations within his territory.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk 2
Scientific NameAccipiter striatus
Length23 – 30 cm
Wingspan17 to 23 in
Weight82 – 120 g

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest member of the Accipiter genus found in North America. Noted for its slender body and short, rounded wings, this hawk is characterized by its blue-gray back and barred orange or reddish underparts. The name “sharp-shinned” refers to the bird’s thin, pencil-like lower leg.

Sharp-shinned Hawks inhabit forests and woodlands, where they exhibit agility and stealth in hunting small birds, their primary food source, although they occasionally consume rodents and insects. They’re known for their impressive flight pattern involving quick, successive wingbeats followed by short glides. When it comes to nesting, they favor coniferous trees and both parents participate in raising their young. Their call, often heard during courtship or territory disputes, is a high-pitched, repetitive ‘kik-kik-kik’.

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainsons Hawk
Swainsons Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo swainsoni
Length17–22 in
Wingspan46–54 in
Weight1.8 lb – 2.5 lb

Swainson’s Hawk, a raptor in the Buteo genus, is recognized by its long wings and somewhat small bill. Named after British ornithologist William Swainson, this hawk is notable for its long-distance migration, travelling from its breeding grounds in North America to wintering areas in Argentina, one of the longest migratory journeys of any American raptor.

The diet of Swainson’s Hawks changes with the seasons. During the breeding season, they primarily feed on rodents and birds (burrowing owls if they are in abundance), while they shift to a diet of insects, especially grasshoppers and beetles, during migration and in their wintering grounds. They are also known for their soaring flight pattern and their distinctive two-part call that sounds like a plaintive whistle.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo regalis
Length51 to 69 cm (20 to 27 in)
Wingspan122 to 152 cm (48 to 60 in)
Weight907 to 2,268 g (32.0 to 80.0 oz)

The Ferruginous Hawk is a large raptor native to the open landscapes of North America. The term “ferruginous” comes from the Latin word for rust, referring to the bird’s reddish-brown coloration. Ferruginous Hawks are primarily known for their size, broad wings, and a distinctive leg feathering that extends to the toes, a feature that makes them the most “feather-legged” of the North American hawks. This bird feeds primarily on mammals like rabbits and prairie dogs, but will also eat birds and reptiles. They thrive in open habitats such as prairies, plains, and deserts, where they often perch on the highest point available. Their nests are typically constructed on cliffs, trees, or man-made structures and are quite large, reflecting the size of the bird itself. Despite their intimidating presence, Ferruginous Hawks are generally more docile than other raptors.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough legged Hawk
Rough legged Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo lagopus
Length18–24 in
Wingspan47 to 60 in
Weight1.32 to 3.66 lb

The Rough-legged Hawk, also a member of the Buteo genus, is named for its feathered legs that are adapted to cold environments in its Arctic breeding grounds. Characterized by a wide variety of plumage, all individuals display a characteristic dark “wrist” patch on the underwing, and a white base to the tail. The light morphs are predominantly white and brown, while the dark morphs are more uniformly dark brown.

Rough-legged Hawks are known for their unique hovering flight behavior when hunting for small mammals, which make up a significant portion of their diet. During the breeding season, these hawks are found in the tundra of the Arctic, where they nest on cliffs or bluffs. In winter, they migrate to southern Canada and the northern United States, becoming one of the few raptors that can adjust well to the cold weather conditions.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawk 2
Scientific NameAccipiter gentilis
LengthMale: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in) / Female: 58 to 69 cm (23 to 27 in)
Wingspan89 to 105 cm (35 to 41 in)/ Female: 108 to 127 cm (43 to 50 in)

The Northern Goshawk is a large bird of prey and the largest member of the Accipiter genus. Native to the Northern Hemisphere, it’s characterized by its slate-gray upperparts, finely barred underparts, and prominent white eyebrow stripe. The name “goshawk” originates from the Old English term for “goose hawk,” denoting the bird’s prowess at hunting large prey.

Northern Goshawks inhabit large, uninterrupted forests, where they are skilled hunters of a wide range of prey, including small mammals and medium to large birds. They are particularly agile fliers, often chasing prey through densely forested environments. These hawks are monogamous, with pairs often returning to the same nesting territory year after year. Their nests are built high in trees, and their breeding season is heralded by spectacular aerial displays and a loud, repetitive ‘kak-kak-kak’ call.

Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk
Broad Winged Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo platypterus
Length13 to 17 in
Wingspan29 to 39 in
Weight9.3 to 19.8 oz

The Broad-winged Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, belonging to the Buteo genus. It’s primarily found throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada, migrating long distances to Central and South America for the winter. The bird is named for its relatively broad wings, and it displays a characteristic white band on the tail, which is bordered by two darker bands.

Broad-winged Hawks inhabit deciduous forests and woodlands, where they primarily feed on small mammals, amphibians, insects, and occasionally birds. They are known for their distinctive soaring flight during migration, often traveling in large groups known as “kettles.” These hawks are monogamous and build nests high in trees where the female usually lays 1 to 3 eggs. Their call is a piercing, two-parted whistle, heard most frequently during the breeding season.

Zone-Tailed Hawk

Zone Tailed Hawk
Zone Tailed Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo albonotatus
Length18 to 22 in
Wingspan46–55 in
Weight1.4 – 2lb

The Zone-Tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus) is a medium-sized bird of prey that can be found in parts of North, Central, and South America. Its most striking feature is its distinct tail, which displays a series of black and white bands, providing this raptor its descriptive name. This bird has a largely blackish plumage, which combined with its tail banding, and general shape and flight pattern, makes it often mistaken for the common Turkey Vulture, a case of Batesian mimicry that can allow it to approach prey unnoticed.

Its diet is highly varied and opportunistic, consuming a wide range of small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Although the Zone-Tailed Hawk usually hunts by soaring and circling high in the air, it can also stealthily approach prey by flying low to the ground. During the breeding season, these hawks pair up and construct nests out of sticks and plant material, typically in tall trees or cliff edges. Its vocalizations, a series of high-pitched whistles, often signal its presence in the area.

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk
Gray Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeo plagiatus
Length18–24 in
Wingspan31 to 34 inches
Weight12.5 – 18.8 oz

The Gray Hawk, also known as the Grey-lined Hawk, is a small bird of prey that is found across a vast range in the Americas, from the southwestern United States through Mexico and Central America, extending to northern South America. It is easily recognizable by its light gray body, darker gray wings, and white underparts with fine gray barring. Its tail is marked with broad white and black bands, giving it a distinctive appearance in flight.

The Gray Hawk is a generalist predator, with a diet that primarily consists of lizards, snakes, small mammals, and birds. It has a unique hunting style, often soaring or perching to locate prey before launching a rapid, direct flight to capture it. The species is monogamous and pairs are known to remain together for multiple breeding seasons. Nests are built high in trees, and both parents participate in the incubation and feeding of the young.

Common Black Hawk

Common Black Hawk
Common Black Hawk 2
Scientific NameButeogallus anthracinus
Length21 inches
Wingspan50 inches
Weight840 g

The Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) is a bird of prey that inhabits various regions across the Americas. Characterized by its black plumage, this bird is native to coastal and interior regions, ranging from the Southwestern United States to Central America, extending down to parts of South America. In its habitat, it is often found near bodies of water like rivers, streams, and marshes. A distinct feature of this bird is its broad, rounded wings and a short, broad tail which allow it to maneuver through densely forested habitats with relative ease.

A notable behavior of the Common Black Hawk is its preference for aquatic prey. It feeds primarily on crustaceans, fish, amphibians, and other small animals found in or near water. This bird is typically solitary, only forming pair bonds during the breeding season. It builds large stick nests high in trees or on cliff faces near water, demonstrating a strong tie to its preferred aquatic habitats. Vocal and conspicuous during breeding season, these birds are known for their piercing, distinct calls that resonate through their habitats.

Best Places to Find Hawks in California

  1. Point Reyes National Seashore: Head to Point Reyes to spot hawks soaring along the dramatic coastal cliffs and open grasslands, especially during the fall migration.

  2. Yosemite National Park: Explore Yosemite’s diverse habitats, from towering sequoias to expansive meadows, where hawks can be seen throughout the year, including the Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.

  3. Carrizo Plain National Monument: This vast grassland provides an ideal habitat for hawks like the Ferruginous Hawk and Northern Harrier. Look for them gliding low over the open fields.

  4. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: In the desert landscapes of Anza-Borrego, keep an eye out for hawks like the Red-tailed Hawk perched on cacti or soaring above the arid terrain.

  5. Central Valley: The agricultural fields and wetlands of California’s Central Valley attract a variety of hawks, including the White-tailed Kite and Swainson’s Hawk, particularly during their migration seasons.

In California, hawks can be found in diverse habitats throughout the state. During the fall migration, Point Reyes National Seashore becomes a prime location to observe hawks as they navigate the coastal cliffs and grasslands. Yosemite National Park offers year-round sightings of hawks such as the Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, with their distinct calls echoing through the park’s varied landscapes.

Carrizo Plain National Monument provides excellent opportunities to spot hawks like the Ferruginous Hawk and Northern Harrier. These majestic birds can be seen gliding effortlessly over the open grasslands, showcasing their hunting skills. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers a unique setting to observe hawks perched on cacti or soaring above the arid desert terrain.

The agricultural fields and wetlands of California’s Central Valley attract a variety of hawks, including the White-tailed Kite and Swainson’s Hawk. During their migration seasons, these hawks can be seen hunting for prey or soaring above the vast expanse of fields.

Exploring beyond California’s diverse ecosystems, you can continue your bird-watching journey into the neighboring states, each offering their unique avian experiences. To the north, Oregon’s lush forests and coastal areas create a captivating habitat for numerous hawk species; dive into this world with our guide on Oregon’s hawks.

To the east, the vast desert landscapes and iconic canyons of Arizona host a range of birds of prey; learn more about Arizona’s hawks. Lastly, the expansive valleys and mountain ranges of Nevada provide a picturesque backdrop for observing these fascinating birds; explore this further with our overview of hawks in Nevada. As you traverse these states, you’ll not only encounter a variety of hawk species but also appreciate the diverse landscapes across the region.

Interesting Facts & Information about Hawks in California

  1. Coastal Migrations: Hawks in California take part in fascinating coastal migrations, using the Pacific coastline as a prominent flyway during their seasonal journeys.

  2. Urban Adaptation: Some hawk species, such as the Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, have successfully adapted to urban environments in California, thriving in city parks and suburban areas.

  3. Varied Prey Selection: Hawks in California display a diverse diet, ranging from small mammals and birds to reptiles and even insects, showcasing their adaptability to different ecosystems.

  4. Superior Eyesight: Hawks possess exceptional vision, with eyesight eight times more powerful than humans. This keen eyesight allows them to spot prey from great distances while soaring high in the skies.

  5. Thermals Utilization: Hawks in California skillfully utilize thermal updrafts to soar effortlessly and conserve energy during their flights, riding the warm air currents to gain altitude.

  6. Courtship Rituals: During courtship displays, hawks engage in spectacular aerial acrobatics, performing impressive dives, twists, and somersaults to attract mates and reinforce pair bonds.

  7. Long-distance Migration: Some hawk species in California, like the Swainson’s Hawk, embark on long-distance migrations, traveling thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in North America from wintering areas in South America.

  8. Nesting Habits: Hawks build nests in various locations, including trees, cliffs, and even human-made structures like power line towers, displaying adaptability in selecting secure sites for raising their young.

  9. Distinct Plumage Variations: Hawks exhibit a wide range of plumage variations within species, including light and dark morphs. These color variations contribute to their camouflage and adaptation to specific habitats.

  10. Role as Apex Predators: Hawks play a crucial role as apex predators in California’s ecosystems, regulating populations of their prey species and maintaining a balance within the food chain.

How do I identify a hawk in California?

To identify a hawk in California, observe its physical characteristics and behavior. Look for key features such as size, shape, coloration, and flight pattern. Pay attention to the bird’s silhouette, noting whether it has broad wings or rounded wings. The coloration can vary, but common hawk colors in California include dark brown, gray, and blue-gray. Check for specific field marks like banded tails, white rump patches, or orange barring.

Consider the habitat where you spotted the hawk, as different species have specific preferences. Additionally, take note of its behavior, such as soaring, hunting, or perching. What is it eating?

What is the biggest hawk in California?

The Northern Goshawk holds the title for the largest hawk species in California. With a wingspan of around 40 to 46 inches and a length of 20 to 26 inches, these majestic birds exhibit impressive size and strength. They have broad wings, a dark brown coloration, and may display orange barring on their underparts.

When is breeding season for hawks in California?

Generally, the breeding season occurs during the spring and summer months, typically from March to August. During this time, hawks engage in courtship rituals, construct nests, and raise their young. Factors such as habitat, availability of prey, and regional climate can influence the exact timing of breeding activities.

What do hawks eat in California?

Hawks in California have diverse diets that vary depending on the species and their specific habitat. They are skilled hunters and primarily feed on a variety of prey, including bird species, medium-sized birds, small rodents, and ground squirrels. Some hawks, like the Red-tailed Hawk, are known to consume a wide range of prey, including snakes, rabbits, and small mammals. Other species, such as the Ferruginous Hawk, have specialized diets and mainly feed on ground squirrels and other rodents. Hawks are opportunistic predators and will also prey on birds, especially smaller species.

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