With more than 280 large state parks full of nature and a wide variety of animal species, the state of California boasts one of the world’s richest natural riches and is also the favorite place of one of the most impressive wild animals that inhabit the earth, hawks.
In California alone you can find up to 12 different species of hawks, making this place even more magical and worthy of being visited by bird and nature lovers. Below we will explain in more detail the 12 types of hawks that live in this state, their main physical characteristics, their diet, and the place where we will be able to spot them.
Let’s get started!
The 12 species of hawks that live in Southern California
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Red-shouldered Hawk
- Swainson’s Hawk
- Ferruginous Hawk
- Sharp-shinned Hawk
- Broad-winged Hawk
- Harris’s Hawk
- Gray Hawk
- Common Black Hawk
- Rough-legged Hawk
- Northern Harrier
1. Red-tailed Hawk
Weight: 2.75 pounds
Size: 50 inches
Location: North America
Life expectancy: 15 years
Red-tailed Hawks are probably the most famous type of hawk in the world and the one we can always see during our visits to North America in practically any place.
The usual areas where we might spot them from our car are forest edges, in open woodlands, grasslands where high-altitude groves of trees grow, or in large areas of open country where they can easily fly and spot prey from above.
It is also possible to see them in urban areas, being very common to see photographs of the area with Red-tailed Hawks resting on a pole or on traffic lights. These large predators love to fly over the high treetops and take advantage of the force of the wind to glide without the need to flap their wings as they prepare for their next capture.
As for its physical appearance, it stands out for its characteristic short and wide red tail that opens in flight like a fan showing all its beauty as its name indicates, its upper feathers have a warm red coloration that becomes somewhat paler in the lower plumage.
Expert Tip: It is important to note that this red coloration does not remain the same in all red-tailed hawks, since depending on the place, specimens of this hawk have been found with much darker colorations or with soft cream tones.
Finally, the wings of this hawk are very broad and have rounded edges that make them very easy to identify even from several meters away.
2. Cooper’s Hawk
Weight: 7.8 – 24 ounces
Size: 14.6 – 17 inches
Life expectancy: 12 years
Diet: Small birds
Cooper’s Hawks are a beautiful species of hawk that can be commonly found anywhere in California throughout the year. However, unlike other species, Cooper’s Hawks are not characterized by being easy to see or identify by their physical features.
As they are known to be very stealthy and always stay within their hunting area, which is usually very dense forests where they can camouflage themselves among the foliage to hunt their prey without being seen.
The physical characteristics of these hawks are very different from those of the Red-tailed Hawks, although that does not make them any less beautiful. The main difference is that they are accipiters rather than buzzards, which causes them to have much shorter wings and a tail twice as long.
The size of Cooper’s hawks is smaller than that of much more showy hawks, having similar measurements to a raven and possessing a beautiful grayish plumage on the outside and an extremely beautiful white and orange plumage on the breast. The most outstanding characteristic of this species is its agility and stealth when hunting.
They like to wait patiently for their prey, always keeping themselves hidden among the thick foliage of the trees and jumping from branch to branch as they prepare to leap towards them.
However, despite being apparently “slower” in their hunting method, once they have their prey (usually small birds) within their reach, they take off quickly and in just a few seconds they manage to fly at really high speeds that allow them to hunt any prey in their field of vision.
3. Red-shouldered Hawk
Weight: 17.2 – 27 ounces
Size: 16.9 – 24.0 inch
Life expectancy: 16 – 25 years
Location: Throughout the United States
Red-shouldered Hawks are very similar in physical appearance to Red-tailed Hawks but smaller in size and can be seen in wooded areas throughout the United States.
They are characterized by being fast hawks that feed mainly on amphibians and reptiles, which is why they can always be seen flying over the forests of the Californian west coast and near areas where there are many bodies of water, being the marshes and banks their favorite places to hunt.
While their appearance is quite similar to that of red-tailed hawks, these hawks tend to be much more colorful and easily recognized by their long brown wings with white and dark brown speckles and thick red and white underparts.
Expert Tip: On the other hand, as a curious fact, these hawks can not only be identified by their beautiful fur but also by their peculiar and distinctive “kee-ah” whistle that we can hear if we walk through a forest even if we do not get to see them.
Finally, they can also be identified by the narrow crescent moons that are created on the tips of their wings when in flight. It is a really beautiful hawk that is worth seeing if we visit this state and also has a life expectancy of up to 25 years, one of the longest of its species.
4. Swainson’s Hawk
Weight: 2.6 pounds
Size: 47 inches
Life expectancy: 17 years
Food: Insects and mammals
Swainson’s Hawks are buzzards just like the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, so their wings are very broad and short and their bodies are very large and intimidating.
This type of hawk is really intimidating to their prey because of the contrast of colors created between the dark brown plumage of their wings and back and the bright white of their underparts, making them look much more dangerous despite being somewhat similar thinner than other similar buteos hawks.
Getting to see these hawks in California is really difficult, as they are rare birds that are only seen during the breeding season and have not been able to breed much in recent decades, so they can only be seen flying over open grasslands and dry plains with widely spaced trees in which they can make their nests.
They love to feed on insects, being their favorite grasshoppers and crickets, something that makes that we can see a flock of Swainson’s Hawk walking through a meadow trying to hunt all the bugs they find.
On the other hand, the physical appearance of this species of hawks varies greatly depending on the sex and the location in which it is found, being more common that the hawks of western California have a much darker plumage (even becoming completely brown both on the outside and inside).
While those of the east tend to present a much warmer plumage with nice shades of brown, reddish, and white. On the other hand, if we prefer to differentiate them by sex, we can observe that the male falcon usually has a pale gray head while the females have a brown head.
5. Ferruginous Hawk
Location: Rural areas of California
Size: 22-27 inches
Weight: 35-73 ounces
Life expectancy: 20 years
The Ferruginous Hawk is considered the largest hawk species in California. This bird has a large wingspan, reaching 55 inches and weighing up to 4.4 pounds at maturity. It is also noteworthy that along with the Cooper’s Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk has one of the longest life expectancies of the species, reaching up to 20 years.
Their diet is based on small mammals and they usually live in the most rural and remote areas of California, being especially meticulous in the way they build their nests during the breeding season.
Its appearance is very striking because of its particular rust-red color that covers its entire back and wings, which is why experts decided to give it the name “Ferruginous”.
Its inner part instead has a warm white color and both its wings and head stand out for being especially large, which makes it easy to see for humans but really intimidating for the rest of the animals that live in its area.
Expert Tip: One of the main problems that have been found in this species is that it is increasingly difficult for them to reproduce, becoming more and more threatened and reducing its current population to a mere 4000 pairs.
However, this does not make it impossible to see some non-breeding specimens of this species on the slopes or dry plains during the winter, appearing calm while resting on a high pole or on the ground, opening their large V-shaped wings.
6. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in
Sharp-shinned Hawks are considered to be the smallest accipiters in all of North America, with the breeding population commonly seen throughout California during the winter season.
For experts, these small-sized hawks are very difficult to distinguish because of their close physical resemblance to Cooper’s Hawks, as both have virtually identical coloration, both have dark gray upperparts and warm orange and lighter brown underparts.
Although they physically resemble Cooper’s hawk, their personality makes them totally different and unique in their species, being great hunters of birds due to their great speed in flight. Their wings are short and wide and their tails are very long, and they love to move around hunting in the thickest forests while chasing songbirds in the area.
7. Broad-winged Hawk
Weight: 1 pound
Size: 27-35 inches
Location: Wooded areas and marshes
Food: Insects and small mammals
Broad-winged Hawks are of medium size and are accustomed to living in wooded areas and swamps. This hawk feeds on both insects and small mammals and can reach a wingspan of 35 inches, which makes it quite intimidating to all its prey.
As its name indicates, its wings are very broad and short and have a pale coloration ranging from brown to white, while its tail is long and full of black and white lines that make it very easy to distinguish while flying.
Expert Tip: The best way to see them is during their migratory season, which takes place between September and October, just before the arrival of winter.
8. Harris’s Hawk
Length: 18.1-23.2 in
Weight: 18.2-31.0 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.9 in
The Harri’s Hawk is one of those hawks that can be seen flying over the tallest groves as well as over city buildings. They are easy to spot along the U.S-Mexico border and love to hunt all kinds of small animals, such as insects, rodents, and small mammals.
It is considered a medium-sized hawk that can weigh up to 1.3 pounds and has a beautiful shiny brown plumage. Its wings are very broad and can reach up to 39 inches and also have a very bright reddish-brown color.
Although this hawk is really easy to identify while flying and to see throughout the year, it is precisely the cry it uses to call its own that makes it unmistakable, with a very particular angry and high-pitched tone.
9. Gray Hawk
Size: 39 inches
Weight: 1.3 pounds
Diet: Small mammals, insects, and rodents.
Location: Forest edges and open fields.
Gray Hawks are medium-sized birds very similar in wingspan to Harris Hawks. Their diet is also very similar to Harris hawks in that they feed on rodents, small mammals, and insects. They like to move around the edge of forests and open fields to more easily spot their prey.
Their wings and upper parts have a beautiful gray hue that contrasts with the creamy white of their underparts, making them truly beautiful birds and easy to identify as they fly.
10. Common Black Hawk
Weight: 1.7 pounds
Size: 47 inches
Location: Mangroves and swampy woodlands
Feeding: Small reptiles
Common black hawks are a rather rare species of a hawk to see, although not impossible. They like to feed on reptiles and fish, being frogs and snakes their favorite prey, which is why if we get to see them it will be around areas with large bodies of water and in the mangroves.
As their name indicates, common black hawks are completely black and the only color marking that makes them distinguishable is the white band on their tail.
Expert Tip: Their wings are very large, measuring up to 47 inches and their tails are quite short, and although they are medium-sized birds, they can weigh up to 2 pounds.
11. Rough-legged Hawk
Weight: 25-49 ounces
Size: 18.5- 20.5 inches
Location: Eastern border of California during winter.
Feeding: Rodents and small mammals
Rough-Legged Hawks are large hawks named for the feathers that run along their legs. These feathers help keep them warm as they migrate northward during the spring and summer, and they commonly nest in Arctic areas.
Their wings are long and narrow and they have long tails that make them different from other hawks, with brown being the most common color for their upperparts and a paler coloration for their underparts.
During the winter it is easy to see them in tall trees or flying over open fields. Their usual hunting grounds are swamps and high groves, where they eat small animals and rodents.
12. Northern Harrier
Location: Grasslands and meadows
Weight: 3 pounds
Size: 43 inches
Northern Harriers are a species of hawks that can be found throughout the state of California, with their favorite hunting grounds being grasslands, pastures, or open fields where they can be seen gliding in search of small voles or mice.
Their flat faces, short bills, and keen sense of hearing make these hawks very similar to owls both in appearance and in the way they hunt, using their acute hearing to detect rodents and swoop down on them quickly.
Expert Tip: These northern hawks are harriers, the only species recorded in all of North America. Their silhouette is very distinctive, with a slender body, very long tail, and broad wings.
On the other hand, we can also distinguish them because they tend to fly in a V-shape and because the females are brown above and white below, while the males are gray above and white below.
In short, we hope that through this simple explanatory guide it has become much clearer to you which are the main hawks that you can find in the state of California and that all the data we have provided will make you see how fantastic these birds are and the main differences between all of them.
Because although at first glance all hawks may seem the same, they are not. They are unique and splendid birds that nature has given us and that are worth studying and taking care of for their preservation over the years.
These 12 species of hawks are only a small part of all the varieties of hawks that exist around the world, making these birds one of the most abundant on the planet as well as being one of the most beautiful to see.
Thank you very much for your attention and we hope you have enjoyed this article!