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Top 14 Most Common Hawks in California

Hawks in California

California is more than beaches, Hollywood, and Redwood Forests. This big state also has several hawk species on the largest bird list of any state!

The Hawks in California include several species commonly seen while driving and hiking in the oak woodlands, grasslands, and neighborhoods of this beautiful western state.

If you have gone birding in California, we bet you’ve seen a lot of hawks but how many could you identify? See this article to learn how to identify the hawks of California!

 

Most Common Hawks in California

According to eBird data, fourteen species of hawks have been seen in California! Nine of those hawks are regular while five other species are rare visitors.

To make a reliable list of hawks in California, we used eBird data to arrange the most common species first and the least common species last.

We realize that hawks aren’t always the easiest of birds to identify. They can fly high overhead and several species look pretty similar.

To help you identify and learn about the hawks of California, our list also includes field marks and information about their behavior. We hope it helps!

  

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed hawk (Juvenile)

Red-Tailed hawk (Juvenile) © Greg Lavaty.

Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis

Speed: 20-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 2.4 pounds
Wingspan: 49 inches
Call: 
keeeyah!

The Red-tailed Hawk is a big and bulky hawk with dark brown upperparts and long, broad wings. Adults have a broad reddish tails and both sexes are similar (although females are larger than males).

In the east, adults have pale underparts with dark marks on their belly, but western birds can be dark brown, buff, or reddish-brown below. Young birds have brown tails with darks barring.

In flight, all Red-tailed Hawks show a large, somewhat square-shaped, pale area near the tips of their wings.

This species preys on a variety of small animals, including squirrels, rats, snakes, and birds. It catches prey by swooping down from a perch or from soaring flight.

Red-tailed Hawks build a messy stick nest high in a tree or on the ledge of a building.

They use a wide range of habitats in Alaska and the USA, much of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of Central America.

Key Identifications:

  • Large, hefty hawk with a reddish tail and dark marks on its pale belly.
  • Preys on small mammals, snakes, and birds.
  • Builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
  • Makes loud, jay-like, ringing calls, “keeeyah!”.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a hefty hawk with long broad wings, a broad reddish tail, and dark marks on its pale belly. In most places, this is the big hawk seen perched next to and soaring over roads and fields. The “raptor scream” often heard in movies and television shows is the call of the Red-tailed Hawk.

 

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk pair

© Tom Grey

Scientific name: Buteo lineatus

Speed: 18-34 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
17 inches, 1.4 pounds
Wingspan: 40 inches
Call: 
keer keer keer keer keer!

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized hawk with reddish-orange underparts and shoulder, and black and white on its wings and tail.

Both sexes are similar but as with most raptors, females are larger than males. Young birds are brown above and have dark streaks on pale underparts.

In flight, all ages of this hawk species are best recognized by their longish, black and white tail and long wings with a pale crescent-shaped mark near the tip of the wing.

Red-shouldered Hawks prey on snakes, frogs, and other small animals. They forage by waiting on a perch and then swooping down to catch the animal on the ground.

This species builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree in wooded and semi-wooded areas, often near wetlands.

The Red-shouldered Hawk lives in a variety of woodland habitats in southeastern Canada, and the eastern USA, including California, southeastern Oregon, and Baja California, Mexico.

Key Identifications:

  • Medium-sized, colorful hawk with reddish-orange underparts and shoulder, and black and white upperparts and tail.
  • Forages for snakes and other small animals on the ground in woodland habitats.
  • Builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
  • Makes loud, jay-like, ringing calls, “keer keer keer keer keer!

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized hawk with reddish underparts and shoulder, and a black and white tail. This raptor lives in a variety of wooded areas and even wooded neighborhoods in California and Florida. This species can join American Crows to harass and chase away Great Horned Owls.

 

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii

Speed: 21-55 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
16.5 inches, 1 pound
Wingspan: 31 inches
Call: 
kek kek kek kek kek!”

The Cooper’s Hawk is a fair-sized hawk with a long, rounded tail and a blocky, square-shaped head. Adults are blue-gray above and have orange barring below.

Both sexes look similar although females are larger. They also often show a dark cap, have pale grayish on their face and side of the neck, and dark banding on their tail.

Young birds are shaped like adults but are dark brown above, have paler brown on the head, and fine dark streaking on pale underparts.

In flight, this species uses its rounded wings to make a few deep flaps followed by a brief glide.

The Cooper’s Hawk preys on doves and other medium-sized birds, and small mammals. It usually catches them on the ground and frequently attacks birds at feeders.

Cooper’s Hawks build a bulky stick nest high in a tree and often nest in parks.

This species lives in a variety of wooded and semi-wooded habitats in southern Canada, most of the USA (including California), and in parts of Mexico.

Key Identifications:

  • Fair-sized hawk with orange barring below, blue gray above, and a long rounded tail.
  • Preys on small mammals and starlings and dove-sized birds in woodlands, parks, and towns.
  • Builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
  • Usually quiet but when breeding, it makes a loud barking call, “kek kek kek kek kek!”

In many areas, it has become adapted to people and catches birds and small mammals in woodlands and towns. The pesticide DDT caused large declines in Cooper’s Hawk populations in the 1950s and 60s but, since then, this species has regained its numbers and become a common bird.

 

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Scientific name: Circus hudsonius

Speed: 21-38 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
18 inches, 15 ounces
Wingspan: 43 inches
Call: 
che che che che che che

The Northern Harrier is a fair-sized, unique hawk with long wings, a long tail, and a white rump. Adult males have gray upperparts, head, and breast. They also have some pale brown spotting on their underparts and black tips on their wings.

Females are dark brown above and have dark brown streaks on pale underparts. Young birds are also dark brown above but have deep orange-buff underparts.

All Northern Harriers have a white rump and glide low over the ground on long wings held in a “V” shape.

This species preys on small animals caught on the ground, sometimes after hovering.

It uses grass and other vegetation to make a shallow, platform nest on the ground, in thick wetland or grassland areas.

Northern Harriers breed in grasslands and other open habitats in Alaska, Canada, California, and the northern and central USA. They winter in much of the USA, Mexico, and rarely to northern South America.

Key Identifications:

  • Distinctive long-winged, long-tailed hawk with a white rump.
  • Glides low over the ground to catch rodents and other small animals in marshes and other open grassy habitats.
  • Builds a platform nest on the ground, in tall thick grass.
  • Makes a repetitive, woodpecker-like call, “che che che che che che

Northern Harriers are long-tailed, long-winged hawks with white rumps. They glide low over the ground of grasslands and marshes to hunt for small animals. This bird and the Hen Harrier of northern Eurasia used to be considered the same species but despite their similar appearance, studies have shown that the Northern Harrier is a distinct species.

 

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp Shinned Hawk

Scientific name: Accipiter striatus

Speed: 16-60 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
11 inches, 5 ounces
Wingspan: 23 inches
Call:
 “kew kew kew kew kew kew kew kew

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a small hawk with a long, rectangular tail and rounded wings. Adults have blue-gray upperparts, orange barring on their underparts, and dark bands on their tail.

Females are larger than males and young birds are dark brown above with thick brown streaks on pale underparts.

This species flies with several quick wing beats followed by brief glides. When flying, its head doesn’t stick out as much as a Cooper’s Hawk and it shows a square-tipped tail.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk preys on small birds up to the size of an American Robin. It mostly catches birds around the same size as sparrows, warblers, and vireos by quickly flying and catching them in vegetation.

This hawk builds a bulky stick nest high in a conifer.

Sharp-shinned Hawks live in wooded habitats in Alaska, much of Canada and the USA, Mexico, parts of Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America.

Key Identifications:     

  • Small hawk with rounded wings and a long, rectangular tail.
  • Preys on small birds in woodland habitats.
  • Builds bulky stick nest high in a conifer.
  • Usually quiet but on breeding grounds makes falcon-like, repeated ringing calls “kew kew kew kew kew kew kew kew”.

This small hawk with a long, rectangular tail breeds in coniferous forests and winters in a range of wooded habitats. It often attacks small birds at feeders. The Sharp-shinned Hawk gets its name from its thin legs that have angled, “sharp” shins.

 

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni

Speed: 15-60 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 1.9 pounds
Wingspan: 51 inches
Call:
 “eeeah!

The Swainson’s Hawk is a big hawk with dark-brown upperparts, long, pointed wings with dark flight feathers, and a broad tail with fine dark barring and a dark tip. Males and females are similar although females are larger.

Adults can have a white throat, front, wing linings, and underparts with a red-brown breast. They can also have a white throat and front, and reddish brown underparts and wing linings, or be entirely dark brown.

Young birds can have dark markings on pale underparts or be mostly dark below.

This species catches grasshoppers and small animals on the ground. It forages by soaring and then swooping down or walking on the ground.

It builds a bulky stick nest in a tree.

Swainson’s Hawks breed in grasslands, meadows, and other open habitats in central and western Canada and the USA, including California. They migrate through the central USA and winter in grasslands in Argentina. A few also migrate through and winter in southern Florida.

Key Identifications:

  • Large, long-winged hawk with dark flight feathers and a broad tail with fine dark banding and a dark tip.
  • Feeds on insects and small animals in prairies and other open habitats.
  • Builds a bulky stick nest in a tree.
  • Makes a loud, descending, single note, “eeeah!”.

The Swainson’s Hawk is a large, long-winged raptor with dark flight feathers and some white on the rump. It soars above and perches in trees, and on the ground in prairies and other open habitats. This species migrates from western North America all the way to grasslands in Argentina.

 

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

Photograph © Tom Grey.

Scientific name: Buteo regalis

Speed: up to 150 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
23 inches, 2.3 pounds
Wingspan: 55 inches
Call:
“reeaaaauh!”

The Ferruginous Hawk is a big hawk with a pale tail, long wings, and feathered legs. There are two color morphs.

Adults can be white below with red-brown on their wing linings and flanks. They also have reddish-brown legs and are reddish-brown and pale gray above. Dark morphs are dark brown with a pale tail and pale flight feathers.

Juveniles are paler below and lack reddish-brown colors.

In flight, it soars with wings held in a shallow “V”. Pale primary patches are also visible on the upper sides of each wing.

The Ferruginous Hawk preys on prairie dogs and other mammals but can also catch waterfowl. It waits on the ground, low perch, or flying low and then snatching prey with its talons.

It builds a big, bulky stick nest in a lone tree, or on a rock outcropping or other structure.

This raptor lives in wide open habitats in south-central Canada, the western USA and northern Mexico. They are common hawks in California.

Key Identifications:

  • Big pale or dark hawk with long wings and a pale tail.
  • Preys on prairie dogs, other mammals, and waterfowl in wide open habitats.
  • Builds a big and bulky stick nest in an isolated tree or other structure.
  • Makes a hoarse, descending call, “reeaaaauh!”.

The Ferruginous Hawk is a big, eagle-like, pale raptor with reddish-brown and gray upperparts. It can also be dark brown with a pale tail and pale flight feathers, and lives in prairies and other wide open habitats. “Ferruginous” means “rust-colored” and refers to the reddish plumage on their backs and legs.

 

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Photograph © Tom Grey

Scientific name: Buteo lagopus

Speed: 22-28 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
22 inches, 1.3 to 3.6 pounds
Wingspan: 53 inches
Call:
“reeaaaauh!”

The Rough-legged Hawk is a long-winged hawk with a black and white tail. There are two color morphs; both with broad white patches near dark wing tips, and a longish pale tail with a broad black tip.

Pale females and juveniles are pale gray-brown with a black belly and black “wrists” in their wings. Pale adult males are more cold gray, have less black on their belly, and heavily streaked breasts.

Dark females and juveniles are dark brown except for their tail and flight feathers. Dark adult males are black except for their flight feathers and tail.

In flight, this species holds its wings in a shallow “V”.

Rough-legged Hawks soar and hover over open fields where they prey on voles and other small animals.

It builds a bulky nest on a cliff or rocky outcropping.

The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in tundra in Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Eurasia, and winters in open fields in southern Canada, the northern, central, and western USA, including California, and Europe and Asia.

Key Identifications:

  • Big hawk with a longish black and white tail, and long wings with broad white patches near the dark wing tips.
  • Preys on rodents and other small animals in wide open habitats.
  • Builds a big, bulky nest on cliffs and rocky outcroppings in tundra.
  • Makes a loud, clear descending call, “reeaaaauh!”.

The Rough-legged Hawk is a big, long-winged hawk with a black and white tail, and broad white patches near the tips of their wings. They hover and soar over weedy fields and other open habitats to hunt for rodents and birds. This species is one of the only hawks in North America that has feathers on its legs.

 

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

© Andrey Gulivanov

Scientific name: Accipiter atricapillus

Speed: 30-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 2 pounds
Wingspan: 40 inches
Call:
“kip kip kip”

The Northern Goshawk is a large, hefty hawk with a long, banded tail, and rounded wings. Adults look similar but females can be 25% larger. Both sexes are gray above and white below with fine gray barring. They also have a dark cap and cheek, red eyes, and a white eyebrow.

Young birds are dark brown above with some pale spotting, have a pale eyebrow, uneven dark bands on their tail, and heavily streaked underparts.

In flight, Northern Goshawks make a few deep flaps followed by long glides.

Related: Owls in California

This powerful raptor preys on squirrels, other small mammals, and grouse, woodpeckers, and many other mid-sized birds. They catch prey on the ground or by quickly flying through vegetation to grasp the unlucky animal with their talons.

This species builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.

In North America, Northern Goshawks live in coniferous and other wild wooded habitats in Alaska, Canada, parts of the northern and western USA, including California, and northern Mexico.

Key Identifications:

  • Hefty, long-tailed hawk with gray plumage or brown, streaked plumage, and a white eyebrow.
  • Preys on fair-sized birds and mammals in coniferous forest habitats.
  • Builds a bulky, stick nest high in a tree.
  • Makes a repeated call, “kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip”.

Pairs hunt for medium-sized birds and mammals in coniferous forest habitats. This powerful raptor is very defensive of its nest and won’t hesitate to attack people and animals that venture too close.

 

Rare Hawks in California

Zone-tailed Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo albonotatus

Speed: around 22 to 28 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
20 inches, 2 pounds
Wingspan: 50 inches
Call:
“reeeeyah!”

The Zone-tailed Hawk is a medium to large, slender, black hawk with long wings and a longish, black and white tail. Both sexes are similar but females are larger. Their wings also have grayish, barred flight feathers and a dark trailing edge, and they have a black and yellow beak.

Young birds look like adults but have grayer flight feathers and fine black banding in their tail.

This raptor species soars on long wings held in a “V” shape and often flies with the similar Turkey Vulture.

Zone-tailed Hawks prey on small mammals, birds, and small reptiles. They forage by mimicking a Turkey Vulture so they can sneak up on and catch animals in vegetation and on the ground.

This species builds a stick nest high in a tree or on a cliff.

The Zone-tailed Hawk lives in shrubby and forested habitats in the American southwest south to Bolivia.

Key Identifications:

  • Black, slender raptor that flies like a Turkey Vulture and has long wings and a longish, black and white tail.
  • Catches birds and other small animals on the ground and in the tops of bushes and trees.
  • Builds a stick nest on a cliff or in a tall tree.
  • Makes a long, drawn out, somewhat hoarse, “reeeeyah!”.

The Zone-tailed Hawk is a black hawk that flies like a Turkey Vulture and has long wings and a longish black and white tail. They live in shrubby arid habitats and tropical forests from the American southwest south to Bolivia. This species often catches small animals trying to escape from fires in grassy and shrubby habitats.

 

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk

© Dominic Sherony

Scientific name: Buteo plagiatus

Speed: around 22 to 28 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
20 inches, 1.05 pounds
Wingspan: 35 inches
Call:
“Keeeear!”

The Gray Hawk is a smallish raptor around the same size as a crow. Adults look the same and are gray with gray barring below and have a longish black and white tail.

Juveniles are dark brown above and have a black and yellow beak. They also have a white face with a dark mark through each eye, dark mark on each side of the throat, a narrow white rump, and dark brown streaks and markings on white underparts.

In flight, Gray Hawks use medium-length wings to soar and make a few deep flaps between glides.

This species feeds on lizards, small birds, and other small animals. It catches prey on the ground and from vegetation after a quick, brief chase.

Gray Hawks build a bulky stick nest high in trees.

This raptor is a tropical species that lives in southeastern Arizona and parts of southern Texas south to Costa Rica. They can be spotted in California.

Key Identifications:

  • Crow-sized, gray-plumaged hawk with a black and white tail and gray barring below.
  • Preys on reptiles and other small animals in arid and subtropical habitats.
  • Builds a messy, stick nest high in a tree.
  • Quite vocal. Gray Hawks make a clear, descending call, “Keeeear!”. It also makes loud, repeated whistles,“keree, keree, keree, keree”.

Gray Hawks are crow-sized, gray or brown, streaked raptors of riparian zones and other subtropical habitats. They prey on reptiles, birds, and other small animals.

 

Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-Winged Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo platypterus

Speed: 20-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
15 inches, 14 ounces
Wingspan: 34 inches
Call: 
sipeeeeeeeee

The Broad-winged Hawk is a smallish raptor around the same size as a crow. Adults are dark brown above, have dark, reddish-brown barring below, and a broad tail with a few wide, white bands.

Both sexes look the same and also have a thick dark mark on each side of their throat, although females are larger.  Young birds have dark brown streaks on pale underparts.

In flight, this species often soars, shows a broad black and white tail, and has long wings shaped like a “paring knife” that also have a dark trailing edge.

This raptor preys on voles, frogs, insects, and other small animals. It catches food by waiting on a perch and then quickly swooping down to the ground.

Broad-winged Hawks make a bulky stick nest high in a tree.

This small hawk breeds in forest habitats in central and southeastern Canada and much of the eastern USA. It winters in southern Florida and Mexico south to Bolivia. Broad-winged Hawks are rare hawks in California, but can still be spotted from time to time.

Key Identifications:

  • Chunky, smallish, crow-sized hawk with a few white bands on its tail and underparts with brown barring or streaks.
  • Preys on insects and small animals in woodland habitats.
  • Builds a bulky nest high in a tree.
  • Makes a high-pitched call, “sipeeeeeeeee

This chunky, crow-sized hawk has a few prominent white bands on its broad tail and either dark barring below or dark streaks. It often soars above and near woodland habitats. In southern Texas and some other places, thousands of Broad-winged Hawks can be seen as they migrate between breeding and tropical wintering grounds.

 

Harris’s Hawk

harris's-hawk in flight

Scientific name: Parabuteo unicinctus

Speed: 22-28 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
20 inches, 1.5 pounds
Wingspan: 44 inches
Call:
“kleeah, klee, klee, klee, klee”

The Harris’s Hawk is a large, dark brown and reddish-brown hawk with a long black and white tail, and much yellow on the base of its beak. Males and females look alike although females are larger.

This raptor species is dark brown with reddish-brown on its shoulders and thighs, has a white undertail, and a longish, black and white tail.

Young birds are like adults but have a paler tail, paler flight feathers, and dark streaks on their underparts.

This hawk soars and makes slow, deep flaps on fairly long, broad wings.

This species feeds on a variety of medium-sized mammals, reptiles, and birds. It catches them by swooping down from a perch or from low flight.

The Harris’s Hawk builds a bulky stick nest in a large cactus or a tree.

Harris’s Hawks live in the desert and subtropical habitats from Texas and parts of the southwestern USA south to Argentina.

Key Identifications:

  • Large, dark brown and reddish-brown hawk with a long black and white tail.
  • Preys on rabbits and other small animals and birds.
  • Builds a bulky stick nest in a large cactus or other sturdy structure.
  • Makes ringing, rather high-pitched calls, “kleeah, klee, klee, klee, klee”.

They live in arid and subtropical habitats and often occur in small groups. In Arizona and other desert habitats, several members of this species cooperate and hunt together to catch rabbits and other animals.

 

Common Black Hawk

Common Black Hawk

Scientific name: Buteogallus anthracinus

Speed: around 22 to 28 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 2.1 pounds
Wingspan: 50 inches
Call:
“klick kee kee keep kickakip”

The Common Black Hawk is a bulky black hawk that has a short, broad tail with one wide white band and a narrow white tip. Males and females look similar but females are larger.

Young birds are dark brown above and have dark brown streaks on buff underparts. They also have a buff face with a dark line through each eye, a dark brown mark on each side of their throat, and a pale tail with fine black barring.

This bird soars on broad wings with a dark outline and a pale “crescent” on the base of the primaries. Young birds have a large pale patch near their wing tips.

This raptor catches fish, insects, and other small animals on the ground, in and near streams and other wetlands.

It builds a messy stick nest in a tree near a stream.

The Common Black Hawk lives in gallery forest in parts of Arizona and near lowland wetland habitats in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Key Identifications:

  • Big, bulky black hawk with a short, broad, black and white tail.
  • Preys on fish, crustaceans, insects, and many other small animals.
  • Builds a bulky stick nest in a tree.
  • Makes repeated, high-pitched whistled calls, “klick kee kee keep kickakip”.

It frequents gallery woodlands along streams and tropical woodlands next to other wetland habitats. When hunting in water, they can wade in the water and use their wings to drive prey to a spot where the small animals are easier to catch.

 

Hawks in California – Frequently Asked Questions

How do I identify a hawk in California?

To identify a hawk in California, it’s important to know which species are possible and to look at field marks like the shape of the bird, the pattern on the underparts, and the pattern on the tail.

Are hawks common in California?

Yes, hawks are common in California. Several species of hawks occur in every part of the state.

What is the biggest hawk in California?

The biggest hawk in California is the Ferruginous Hawk. It is 23 inches long and weighs 3.5 pounds.

Are there hawks in Los Angeles?

Yes, there are hawks that live in Los Angeles. The most common hawk species in Los Angeles are the Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk, and the Cooper’s Hawk.

Are hawks rare in California?

No, hawks are commonly seen in California.

How big are California hawks?

California hawks are as big as the 23 inch long Ferruginous Hawk, and as small as an American Robin (the Sharp-shinned Hawk).

 

More in California: Most common birds | Ducks | Owls | State Bird

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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