California Hawks: Remarkable Ways To Differentiate Its Species Sounds & Look At Plumage

Brown red-tailed hawk

Last Updated: July 17, 2021

California - the land of Disneyland, surreal beaches, and Hollywood, can give you unforgettable birding tours.

Aside from those...

It's home to over 600 species of birds, one of the largest populations in the US. The hawks in California are among these species. To see them, you'll explore marshes, beaches, forests, and so many other habitats.

So, which species will you be looking for in this state? Let's have a look...

California Hawks & Where To See Them

1. Red-Tailed Hawk

brown hawk looking back in a grassfield

The easiest way to ID it in the wild is by its red tail. If you see this bird from above, you'll notice dark brown wings against a red tail. From below, it'll appear pale with dark wingtips and a dark band across its belly.

You don't have to visit a park to see the red-tailed hawk as you can even spot it in the countryside. These California natives inhabit almost any zone, as you can find them in grasslands as well as woodlands.

They also frequent open fields where there's pasture. Do you know why? They can soar over the land looking for voles or rabbits.

When they spot some rodents, these hawks perch on a post until it's time to attack. Blackbirds plus starlings are also on their menu.

2. Rough-Legged Hawk

black and white hawk standing on a post

All the hawks we'll mention have a unique identification method, whether you'll have to differentiate California hawk sounds or look at the plumage.

For the rough-legged hawk, it's the feathers on its legs that'll tell it apart from other species.

The rough-legged hawk with light morph has a dark head against streaked plumage. When flying, it has a black band on its tail. The female has a dark stripe across her belly above a pale chest. The dark morph adult is as beautiful, with its underwings split into white and dark colors.

This hawk has a non-breeding range in this state, mainly in the eastern and northeastern areas. It's not as big as the red-tailed hawk, though it can grow to a little over 20 inches long.


3. Swainson's Hawk

Swainson's Hawk sitting in the rain

It migrates dramatically with a flock of thousands of birds; hence, the migration is the best time to see this raptor. If you're going birding any other time, you can spot this California hawk in prairies and grasslands.

It even hunts in farmlands, on foot, to catch insects and mammals. However, these hawks also hunt from the air by soaring over a prairie.

They eat rodents and reptiles, but after the breeding season, they prefer insects.

You should see their courtship rituals. They even include a sky dance above the nesting area where the male soars and dives around the female.

4. Northern Goshawk

striped white and brown hawk on ground

Earlier, we mentioned that sounds help you ID them. Well, to know it's a northern goshawk, listen for KI-KI-KI sounds repeated about 20 times when protecting a nest from prey.

At other times, such as when announcing their entry into the territory, a male bird's call sounds like KREE-AH!

If you still can't tell whether you're looking at a northern goshawk, look out for a gray crown, a belly with gray barrings, and a gray back.

The northern parts of this state have a year-round and a non-breeding population. However, the southern side has a scarce non-breeding population.


5. Northern Harrier

northern harrier bird of prey on hunt

California has a non-breeding range of northern harriers. It flies lower than most raptors gliding with its wings in a V-shape.

Male birds may have several mates at a time, and the best way to win a mate is by showing off sky dancing skills.

Breeding mates protect their nests from predators like owls, crows, and ravens. They also have to protect their eggs and nestlings from domestic animals since northern harriers build their nests on the ground in bulrush or willow.

The most common habitats for these birds of prey are wetlands and grasslands with dense vegetation. In California, you may find them in upland areas.


6. Ferruginous Hawk

brown and white hawk perched on a tree

It's a rare sighting; luckily, it winters in some parts of California. It inhabits prairies and open fields, even farmlands; therefore, you can explore grasslands, plains, and deserts to see it.

The ferruginous hawk is a large bird with pale underparts or a chestnut-colored belly, depending on if it's a dark or light morph. It hunts like most raptors, either from the sky or by watching its prey from a perch. It feeds on small animals like rats as well as snakes and squirrels.

The male brings hunts for the female and the nestlings for the first three weeks. The nestlings are ready to fly out of the nest in about 40 to 50 days.

7. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

immature sharp-shinned hawk watching for prey

Pictures of hawks may not help differentiate a sharp-shinned from Cooper's hawk because they are almost alike from the gray crown to reddish eyes. You'd need to see the actual size of the birds as the sharp-shinned is smaller.

After you tell them apart by their size and raptor sound, you'll notice that the sharp-shinned has long legs but short wings.

It also has a long tail, and it nests in forests with aspens and conifers, among other trees. California has a year-round and a non-breeding population.


8. Cooper's Hawk

perched cooper's hawk on a large tree

It's a small bird, though not as small as the sharp-shinned raptor. Cooper's hawks have red eyes; nonetheless, you may also see some with yellowish eyes.

It has strong talons for a bird that is about 20 inches long with a wingspan of 35 inches. But, these talons help it hunt birds and other animals.

California has a year-round population of Cooper's hawk, and your search for it will take you to woodlands in the state.

If your bird feeder has corn or millet, some of the best foods for morning doves, you'll eventually attract Cooper's hawks as they feed on morning doves and other small birds. This California hawk also eats hares, bats, and pheasants.


9. Red-Shouldered Hawk

young hawk standing on a tree branch in a forest

The red-shouldered hawk has a year-round population in the eastern states; then, it skips most central and western states of the US to inhabit California.

That's how lucky you are if you're a birder in California. You only need to find riparian woodlands or eucalyptus groves for sightings of the red-shouldered hawk. You can also search for it in residential zones as it frequents bird feeders to hunt sparrows and starlings.

Other animals on its menu are lizards, crayfish, voles, chipmunks, and snakes. It can perch near a pond for hours, waiting for prey.

When it soars in the sky, you'll notice its striking reddish-brown underparts that contrast black and white flight feathers.

The tail is also a sequence of black and white bands. If you don't get the chance to see it in flight, you can still ID it by its reddish-brown underparts when perched on a tree.

So, which are the best destinations to see California hawks? To see the rough-legged hawk, plan a birding trip to Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges Complex.

If you'd like to spot more hawks at once, you'll love the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There's a section called Hawk Hill where you can view these raptors from September to November.

Some of the species you'll be hoping to see are Cooper's hawk, the ferruginous hawk, sharp-shinned hawks, the broad-winged hawk, and the red-tailed one.


Frequently Asked Questions

What Type Of Hawks Live In California?

There are nine types of hawks in this state, including the red-tailed and ferruginous hawk. We've mentioned all of these species above.

The northern goshawk and the northern harrier are raptors of special concern in this state because of a reduction in breeding densities in some zones, such as the coastal redwood zone.

What Is The Largest Hawk In California?

The ferruginous hawk is California's largest raptor. Its length ranges from 20 to 25 inches, and its wing to wing length can extend to 56 inches.

Hear its sound in flight with this video:

Can You Own A Hawk In California?

Yes, if 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?

You can spot the red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawk species in Angeles.

Final Thoughts

Let's agree, California has so many experiences for a birder. It's even better if you're a beginner looking for a birding tour that'll ignite the adventure spirit. Why? Imagine sightings of nine raptors in one birding vacation.

You can start birding right from your backyard through sightings of Cooper's hawks, red-shouldered and sharp-shinned hawks. Additionally, as you drive away from towns, look out for red-tailed hawks. There are so many experiences awaiting you.

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