Last Updated on: February 9, 2024
I had always known the great state of California for its beautiful scenery and attractions. Imagine the shock I felt when I sighted a hawk happily flapping its wings in the sky.
The questions of, are there indeed hawks in California? How many species are native to California? And where I could spot these species of hawks kept popping in my head.
This led me to research them, and I was amazed at the outcome. Therefore, you should read further to know more! I will be discussing the various species of hawks found in California and how to identify them.
9 Hawks of California
You’re likely to spot the accipiter or buteo hawks species native to California.
However, to see them, you have to be vigilant as most of these species are seasonal, but you can still spot some flying all year round. Below are the most common species of hawks found in California:
1. Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous hawks are regarded as large buteo hawks with the characteristic long wings and large heads. They differ by their narrower wingtips.
Their rusty brown color earned them the name ‘ferruginous.’
You can mainly spot them during winter in California in places like grasslands, prairie, sagebrush steppe, scrubland, and pinyon-juniper woodland edges.
Observing the rusty brown underparts and pale heads, you can identify the light-morph Ferruginous hawk. The dark-morph species are mostly deep rufous-chocolate in color. The peculiar behavior of this species is their ability to soar with their wings held slightly raised but with the wingtips held almost flat.
Ferruginous hawks are classified as endangered hawk species in California. It might be difficult to spot one; however, watch out for winter, and you might see one.
Size and Shape
- Length: 22.1-27.2 in
- Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz
- Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in
2. Red Shouldered Hawk
Red shouldered hawks are medium-sized hawks with slim bodies and relatively long tails. With their dark-and-white checkered wings and warm reddish barring on the breast, you can quickly distinguish the colorful adult hawks from the younger ones. The younger ones are mainly brown.
One distinguishing feature of the red shouldered hawk is the pale crescents near the wingtips during flight.
You can find these secretive yet noisy raptors in deciduous woodlands, often near rivers and swamps. They give a quick series of whistles that are slurred together during the flight. Thus, when you hear the call sound ‘ kee-ah,’ you are most likely around a red-shouldered hawk.
Size and Shape
- Length: 16.9-24.0 in
- Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
- Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in
3. Northern Harrier
Suppose you are around wide-open habitats, marshes, and grasslands. In that case, you should be very observant as you can spot a Northern Harrier. These medium-sized raptors have long, broad wings with an owl-like face. They also have small, sharply hooked bills.
The males are gray on the back and whitish below with black wingtips. However, females and younger ones are brown, with black bands on the tail. These raptors are fond of flying low over the ground weaving back and forth over fields and marshes as they watch and hunt for small mammals.
Size and Shape
- Length: 18.1-19.7 in
- Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz
- Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in
4. Red-Tailed Hawk
The Red-tailed hawk is one of the largest California hawks and a symbolic bird of prey — you must have heard their shrill kee-eeeee-ar around or in the movies. These hawks have rich rusty brown plumage and a pale underside. With their characteristic red tail, you can easily spot them anywhere.
Most female red-tails grow so large you could mistake them for an eagle from afar.
With occasional heavy wingbeats, red-tailed hawks soar in wide circles high over a field. And they give a hoarse, rasping two to three-second scream during this flight. You can find them in open fields, grasslands, or marsh-shrub habitats. Funny how they can also be found in urban areas like parks.
Size and Shape
- Length: 17.7-25.6 in
- Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
- Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in
5. Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s hawks are classified as medium-sized Hawks with the classic accipiter shape. They have a larger head, broad shoulders, and a rounded tail. The Adult Cooper’s Hawk has a blue-gray back with warm reddish bars on its underside. The adults differ from the juveniles with their red-colored eyes. The younger ones possess yellow eyes with a brown back.
The Cooper’s hawk usually perches and watches for its prey when hunting. It waits until its victim looks away, then quickly swoops down for the kill. Also, when flying, males raise their wings high above the back and fly in a wide arc with slow, rhythmic flapping.
You are most likely to find Cooper’s Hawk in wooded habitats, deep forests, and backyards.
Size and Shape
- Length: 14.6-17.7 in
- Weight: 7.8- 24.0 oz
- Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in
6. Swainson’s Hawk
These hawks are rarely seen; however, you’re likely to see them in their breeding season during summer. Their population in California is slowly declining.
In places like dry grasslands, plains, and other wide-open spaces with scattered trees, Swainson’s hawk nests there. Swainson’s hawks are large buteo hawks with characteristic broad wings and short tails, although less bulky than other buteos. They have distinctive underwings with white wing linings contrasting strongly with blackish flight feathers.
They are social raptors often found in groups. You may see them soaring in a kettle of migrating birds, strung out on the ground, fence posts, and utility poles when foraging on grasshoppers; or chasing swarms of dragonflies in winter quarters in Argentina.
Size and Shape
- Length: 18.9-22.1 in
- Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
- Wingspan: 49 in
7. Northern Goshawk
Goshawks are sizable raptors — with distinguishable slate gray and white plumage.
Their wings are round and broad and with a long tail. They fly with a few relatively slow wingbeats interspersed with short glides. They observe prey on high perches and then attack with quick, agile flight.
Northern Goshawk is regarded as the largest and bulkiest accipiter hawk. These raptors can be found in the thick woods. They mainly live in coniferous forests but also in deciduous hardwood forests. Thus, you can likely spot one when you go on a forest trail.
Size and Shape
- Length: 20.9-25.2 in
- Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
- Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
8. Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp shinned Hawks are small, long-tailed hawks with small heads. They also have short rounded wings with square-tipped tails. Adult hawks are slate blue-gray colored on the back with narrow, horizontal red-orange bars on the breast.
You can spot these raptors in places such as deep forests during the breeding period. In non-breeding seasons, you can spot them on forest edges and sometimes at backyard bird feeders. One distinguishing feature about sharp shinned hawks is their flying agility.
They speed through dense woods to surprise their prey, typically songbirds. They may also pounce on their prey from low perches. When flying across open areas, they have a distinctive flap-and-glide flight style.
Size and Shape
- Length: 9.4-13.4 in
- Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
- Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in
9. Rough-Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawks are large buteo hawks with relatively narrow wings and a tail longer than most buteo hawks. Their wingtips are broad and often hint at an M shape in flight.
You can also recognize them with their boldly patterned dark brown body. These raptors earned their name due to the feathers that ran down their legs.
These tenacious and adaptive hawks can be found in prairies, shrub steppes, semi-deserts, grasslands, marshes, bogs, and dunes during the winter. You can find the Rough Legged hawks facing the wind and hovering, scanning the ground below for small mammal prey when hunting. They also make cat-like meow calls for communication.
Size and Shape
- Length: 18.5-20.5 in
- Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
- Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
How to Attract a Hawk to Your Backyard
I know this might sound a little bit insane. Why would anyone want to attract a raptor to their backyard? This raptor can be used to prevent harmful wildlife from coming to your backyard! Imagine having hawks in your yard who is an enemy to snakes.
Perhaps you don’t need hawks in this regard; having them in your backyard lets a birder observe these species closely. What best way can you tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-shouldered hawk, if not on a very close inspection, which can happen right in your backyard?
Below are some tips on how to attract a hawk to your backyard:
1. Grow Tall and Sturdy Trees
Hawks need a place to roost, and a tall tree is suitable for such. A tree offers them the chance to perch while waiting or watching its prey. They can also build their nests on such trees, although this is rare. If you don’t have a tree in your backyard, you can create a makeshift place that provides them an environment to roost and perch.
2. Offer Constant Water Supply
Birds need water for survival, and hawks are no different. Hawks need water for cooling and rehydrating. Thus, if your backyard has a vast water bath, the possibility of attracting a hawk is high. Ensure the water bath isn’t close to your home windows and that the water supply is steady.
However, if you have a natural water source around your home, you might not need to build an artificial source.
3. Offer Preys to Them
A hawk can’t be attracted to your backyard if there is no food available. Hawks feed on smaller mammals and other animals. To attract your favorite hawk species to your yard, make available prey animals. You can opt to buy or depend on those that naturally disturb your yard. Then you can sit down and watch that hawk take care of such animal disturbance.
4. Don’t Cut Down Dead Trees and Bushes
Dead trees and bushes help to make your yard look natural. Therefore, ensure you leave some trees and bushes behind when clearing your yard. This gives the hawks the illusion that your yard is a natural habitat in which they can dwell. Dead trees and bushes can also help you attract smaller animals and wildlife that can serve as prey for the hawks.
Ensure you protect your other pets from going towards the bird feeders if you fancy attracting a hawk to your yard. This is quite a challenging feat although doable. Careful planning is required to succeed in doing this. You indeed want to see a hawk in a closer view but preying on your other pets isn’t part of the plan!
Roaming Tip: From ferocious hawks to lovable woodpeckers, we’ll provide you with everything to know so that your bird-watching is worthy of your time. Proceed to this post to begin — Missouri Woodpeckers.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Type of Hawks Live in California?
There are nine species of hawks in California. However, some species are found all year round, while some are seasonal. The species found all year round are the Red-tailed Hawks, Red shouldered Hawks, and Cooper’s Hawks.
The other species of hawks regularly found in the state are Swainson’s Hawks, Rough legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Northern Harriers, Northern Goshawks, and Sharp shinned Hawks.
What is the Largest Hawk in California?
The Ferruginous Hawk is the largest California hawk weighing up to 1500 grams with an average 55-inch wingspan. This is more than double the size of Sharp-shinned Hawks – the smallest California hawk.
Can You Own a Hawk in California?
Suppose you’re interested in owning a hawk as a pet in California, and you’re bothered if it’s legal or permitted. Then be rest assured, as you can own a hawk provided you have a permit that allows you to “take, import, export, possess, purchase…” a bird that the California Endangered Species Act lists as an endangered or threatened species.
What Kind of Hawks are in Los Angeles?
I am sure you are wondering if you can spot hawk species in the capital of the great state of California. As documented, three species of hawks have been seen nesting in Los Angeles. These species include the Red-tailed hawk, Red-shouldered hawk, and Cooper’s hawk.
In addition, Red-tailed hawks are one of the most common large raptor species in North America and are abundant nesters in Los Angeles.
What are the Common California Hawk Sounds?
Red-tail hawks make a screaming hoarse Kee-eeee-arr sound. This sound is commonly heard when they are soaring and can last for 2-3 seconds. Most hawks also make a shrill call during courtship. The Rough Legged hawks are also fond of making cat-like meow calls for communication.
Hawk watching is a thing and can be pretty thrilling. These raptors have some characteristic behaviors that leave you intrigued. What about the sounds they make? Lovely to hear as you try to distinguish them.
You can go on forest hiking, visit parks, woodlands, or even swampy areas, and you might see thousands of hawks flying in the sky. You can also attract them to your backyard for their predatory benefits. You can do this with the tips you learned above.
Nonetheless, which California hawks have you spotted before and where? And if you haven’t seen any, I guess it’s time you start observing them!