A Closer Look At The Amazing Hawks In California: Getting To Know The Species The Easy Way

hawk on a tree branch

Last Updated: April 25, 2021

Most birders already know how hawks have various species. However, you might wonder which among them are California hawks. I understand how California hawk identification can be a tricky activity since you will often see them soaring high above and at a great distance.

And so...

This article wishes to present each reader with a fresh and straightforward approach to bird identification. Hopefully, this helpful guide will serve its purpose in observing hawks in California and make birdwatching more fun for you.

Various Species Of California Hawks

The state of California is a haven for a broad array of birds. If you're someone who is as captivated with birds of prey as I am, then keep reading. You will find this next section fascinating as we go over several types of hawks in California.

Here are some of them:

1. Common Black Hawk

black hawk on a tree branch

Any birder can quickly distinguish a common black hawk with its stocky all-black body, broad wings, and fan-shaped tail with a white band.

You will most likely encounter it whenever water is nearby since this hawk is keen on frogs and fishes.

This California hawk frequently dwells in mature woodlands and willows where cottonwoods are abundant or where there are adequate hunting perches. It takes pleasure in diving from a high altitude to snap off dead branches from trees during flight.


2. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

hawk facing right on a branch

This bird is among the hawks of California that are naturally territorial.

It will not hesitate in striking a human in defense of its nesting site.

The sharp-shinned hawk typically uses the bounding flight mechanism or the interchanging rise and fall in a bird's flight pattern.

Among the hawks native to California, this bird is the smallest, like a miniature of the goshawk or a smaller relative of cooper’s hawk. However, never make the mistake of underestimating this bird because it's pretty adept at capturing birds more substantial than itself despite its size.


3. Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-tailed hawk standing on grass

The red-tailed is among the most familiar and pervasive hawks in California.

Their kind is among the hawks in Los Angeles, which also have a substantial population in Sacramento Valley, probably due to their remarkable ability to dwell in various habitats.

A red-tailed adult has a prominent reddish tail both when it's soaring and when perched.

Their kind is also significantly shifting in plumage, ranging from entirely whitish to blackish body color. Moreover, this enormous bird is a common, year-round California resident, rarely forming flocks.


4. Gray Hawk

Gray hawk on a tree branch

This California hawk only has a hundred pairs that you can find breeding in the United States. It is noticeable for its swift wing beats while hunting and snatching for lizards, snakes, small birds, insects, fish, and rodents.

It has distinctive grayish underparts with thin white bars, an extraordinary plumage for a Buteo hawk.

You will mostly encounter their kind soaring in cottonwood forests where a few streams or running water are nearby.

The gray hawk is a singly bird, and its song is among the most common California hawk sounds you can hear, like a long series of whistled calls. Additionally, the bird also likes feeding on small creatures like birds and frogs.


5. Cooper’s Hawk

Red-orange hawk on branch of a tree

The Cooper is among the California hawk species well known as the larger counterpart of the sharp-shinned hawk. 

Naturally secretive and inconspicuous, the cooper is addicted to bird-killing, which is how it got its reputation for being the "chicken-hawk," as most farmers call it.

It typically dwells in the woodland, and while it favors staying close to cover, it will undoubtedly set out when searching for its food. The cooper mainly takes doves, pigeons, and birds at feeders.

Unlike a sharp-shinned hawk that attacks human intruders, the cooper is one of the hawks in Southern California that merely glides away from its nest when a human's nearby.

6. Harris's Hawk

Flying hawk across the grass

Among the hawks that live in California, the harris hawk is not fond of migrating; however, it sometimes displays nomadic tendencies. Nevertheless, these tendencies are only due to rainfall and prey abundance.

You will commonly see this raptor hunting in packs; it's effortlessly identifiable with its dark-colored back, chestnut shoulders, long legs, and tails.

It's one gregarious raptor that is a real team player, hunting and tending nests collaboratively.

7. Northern Goshawk

brown hawk on a snowy field

A chunky body, large bill, and rounded wings are some of the features you will quickly notice from a northern goshawk. It's slightly larger than a crow with a black-colored head, a white line above the eye, and bluish-gray underparts highlighted by several dark streaks.

This raptor is among the several hawks in Northern California with fascinating hunting style, pursuing their prey by sprinting through dense vegetation.

It is also very reticent, so observing it can be pretty tricky even in places where this hawk is common.


8. Zone-Tailed Hawk

hawk facing right

This raptor is among the California hawks that closely resembles turkey vultures in shape and flight styles, except that it's slightly smaller than the latter. It has an overall black color, including black and white ridges and tail bands.

By mimicking the turkey vulture, it naturally earns the zone-tailed hawk favor of approaching its prey without scaring it away.

It's also co-sharing the riverine woodland as its primary habitat with the common black hawk, sometimes inhabiting deserts and mountains too.

Furthermore, it's pretty common to witness this raptor soaring with dihedral wings as it joins other species cruising the countryside in flight.


9. Red-Shouldered Hawk

red shouldered hawk on a fence

 

One of the hawks that live in California with a large body size, brownish upperparts, and white underparts highlighted by rust-red barring is the red-shouldered hawk.

It is a frequent dweller of farming countries, wooded river bottoms, swamps, and remote areas.

Likewise, this hawk has the habit of using old nests as its feeding platform, primarily feeding on beetles, spiders, rabbits, birds, frogs, and mice.

It also earned the reputation of using the exact territory even after succeeding generations and excellent in stalking its prey from a perch.


10. Ferruginous Hawk

hawk held by a man

Pale brown heads and reddish backs characterize both adult male and female ferruginous hawks. They also have large reddish patches on their shoulders and back and lacks dark subterminal tail bands.

It is among the most prominent-sized buteos that ever existed, also a powerful predatory bird, making it an excellent match for its name, which means royal or kingly.

It prefers eating ground squirrels, small to medium-sized birds, and more, typically spotting them from a perch.


11. Broad-Winged Hawk

hawk flying in the sky

If you're looking at pictures of hawks in California, you will quickly notice a broad-winged hawk with its chunky body, barred reddish underparts, underwing linings, and pointed wingtips.

It is among the tiniest buteos you can find in Northern America, and it is among the tamest.

This hawk species mostly migrates in flocks, preying on insects and snakes that hibernate or

die with the onset of cold temperatures. It is pretty average for birders to encounter this hawk in a single thermal with sprawled wings and fanned tails as they soar higher and higher.


12. Rough-Legged Hawk

brown hawk standing on a field

This amazing hawk has the capability of detecting the ultraviolet reflections of rodent urine and feces, helping it locate vole-rich meadows. It has a more substantial body size, longer wings, and tails than a species that it's often mistaken with the common buzzard.

Some find it challenging to identify this raptor based on appearance since it comes in two color stages; the light and dark phases.

Rough-legged is the most nocturnal of all hawk species, fond of inhabiting open countries, fields, and marshes while preying on small rodents like lemmings.

13. Swainson’s Hawk

Dark brown and white hawk

Swainson is a hawk species that typically leaves North America through the fall season and migrates to Argentina's plains in winter.

This fall migration is one spectacular event where you can witness thousands of Swainson's hawks soaring in the air at any one time.

It has a proportionate look similar to a red-tailed hawk except for its more pointed wings. The Swainson often glides, and when it does, its wings are in dihedral somewhat overhead the horizontal.

This hawk mainly eats pocket gophers, songbirds, ground squirrels, etc., and likes breeding in scattered trees along streams or open woodlands.

It also prefers perching before diving for its prey.

Your FAQs About California Hawks 

What type of hawks lives in California?

As discussed in the previous section of this article, you will always have excellent opportunities of witnessing different hawk species regardless of where you are in the state.

Some of these breathtaking hawk species you will mostly encounter in California are the following:

  • Common black hawk
  • Sharp-shinned hawk
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Gray hawk
  • Cooper's hawk
  • Harris hawk
  • Northern goshawk
  • Zone-tailed hawk
  • Red-shouldered hawk
  • Ferruginous hawk
  • Broad-winged hawk
  • Rough-legged hawk
  • Swainson's hawk

Swainson's Hawk is one of the species who migrates, learn more about it here:

What is the largest hawk in California?

The Ferruginous hawks are considered the largest raptor you can encounter in California and the whole United States. Their wingspread has the maximum extent of up to five feet and approximately weigh about five pounds.

Can you own a hawk in California?

Owning any birds of prey in California is illegal.

They are under the protection of state and federal law, which forbids you from owning them or keeping them to become your pets.

The only exclusion to this law is the licensed falconers, who, in essence, have to go through a state exam. However, the state only supports the capture of limited birds of prey.

What kind of hawks are in Los Angeles?

While the hawk species are widespread throughout California, you can only see a few of them in Los Angeles, and they are the following:

  • Cooper's hawk
  • Sharp-shinned hawk
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Red-shouldered hawk

Final Thoughts

Understanding species diversity, including a raptor's appearance, behavior, feeding and nesting habits, habitat preferences, and flight patterns, can help us effortlessly identify each one of them.

With California being home to various birds of prey, you will never run out of chances to observe and learn from these hawk species. Hopefully, all these new learnings will help make your birdwatching experience a fun and memorable activity for you.

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