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9 Types of Hawks in California (Pictures)

 Last Reviewed by Jesse Foutch on 02-07-2024

California’s varied landscapes, from its iconic coastlines to the vast deserts and towering mountains, create a rich habitat for diverse wildlife, including a variety of hawks. This article takes a closer look at these majestic birds of prey, some of which reside in the state throughout the year and others just visit during specific seasons.

The hawks you’ll find in California include red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s hawks, Swainson’s hawks, rough-legged hawks, ferruginous hawks, northern harriers, northern goshawks, and sharp-shinned hawks. These hawks all play a vital role in the ecosystem, such as their importance in controlling rodent populations.

The following list will provide an overview of each species, focusing on their characteristics, preferred habitats, the optimal times to observe them in their natural surroundings, and most importantly some pictures to help ID them.


In this article, we refer to both accipiters and buteos as ‘hawks’ in alignment with North American terminology. This usage reflects regional naming conventions and is not intended to overlook the taxonomic distinctions among these groups of birds of prey.

1. Red-Tailed Hawk

Image: 272447 |
  • Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Length: 17.7-25.6 in
  • Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in

Red-tailed hawks are the most common and widespread hawks in North America. Find them year-round in California on the edges of forests, open woodlands, prairie groves, and pretty much any other area that offers trees or tall perches as well as open grounds for hunting.

These hawks are often spotted during car rides, slowly circling above over roadside treetops, or perched on traffic lights or poles. If the wind is strong enough, they may take advantage of it and hover without flapping, scoping out the area for small rodents and other prey.

red tailed hawk perched branch
red-tailed hawk | source: USFWS – Pacific Region

Red-tails are the largest buteos in North America — they have short, wide tails that fan out in flight and long, broad wings with rounded edges. Like their name implies, they have tails with warm red coloration on the upper feathers, with pale feathers below.

However, you might find Californian red-tailed hawks with differing colorations, as birds west of the Mississippi River are frequently varied in overall color, ranging from very dark morphs to light, cream-colored morphs. 

Red-tailed hawk status in California: Stable and widespread, the red-tailed hawk faces minimal conservation threats in the state.

2. Red-Shouldered Hawk

Image: pixabay
  • Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
  • Length: 16.9-24.0 in
  • Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
  • Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in

Red-shouldered hawks are less common than red-tailed hawks, though stable, year-round populations are found along the western coast of California. These hawks are typically found in areas near bodies of water such as riverside woodlands, and swamps. Finding them is usually easier once you’re familiar with their distinct, “kee-ah” calls and whistles — as they’re often heard before they’re spotted. 

red shouldered hawks
red-shouldered hawks | source: ALAN SCHMIERER

Red-shouldered hawks are typically pretty easy to ID. They’re medium-sized buteos with silhouettes similar to red-tailed hawks, but only slightly smaller. Their wings are checkered with splotches of dark-brown and white, and their undersides feature beautiful red and white barring. While in flight it’s easy to observe the narrow, translucent crescents located near the tips of their wings.

Red-shouldered hawk status in California: Maintains stable populations, especially in wooded regions near water sources, without significant conservation concerns.

3. Cooper’s Hawk 

Image: mpmochrie |
  • Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Length: 14.6-17.7 in
  • Weight: 7.8- 24.0 oz
  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in

Cooper’s hawks are another common, year-round hawk in California. However, though widespread they are often hard to spot due to their stealthy behavior. They’re also smaller than other types of hawks like the red-tailed hawk, so picking them out isn’t as obvious.

Unlike red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s hawks are accipiters and possess longer tails and shorter wings than buteos. They also consume other birds as a main component of their diet. These crow-sized hawks have gray plumage on their upper parts and white undersides with orangey barring.

coopers hawk tree
Cooper’s Hawk in tree

These hawks tend stick to dense forests and woodlands that also offer open spaces for hunting. They use the cover of foliage and branches to sneak up and stalk their prey, silently moving from perch to perch. Then, once they have an opening, they take off in a burst of speed. Cooper’s hawks are known to be very skilled fliers,  quickly chasing small birds through the trees. 

Cooper’s hawk status in California: Experiencing a positive trend in population, partly due to urban adaptation, with no immediate conservation concerns.

4. Swainson’s Hawk

Image: 272447 |
  • Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Length: 18.9-22.1 in
  • Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
  • Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in

Spotting a Swainson’s hawk in California is tricky — these uncommon birds are only found during breeding season, and their populations have faced serious declines in the state. Your best chance of finding one is to head for open country. Swainson’s hawks inhabit dry grasslands, plains, and other wide open spaces with scattered trees for nesting.

They’re often soaring above these areas or perched high up. Sometimes they chase insects on the ground, or just sit and wait for them. In places where there are lots of crickets, grasshoppers, and other prey – flocks of these hawks called kettles may sit together to enjoy their meals. 

swainsons hawk
Swainson’s Hawk | image by NPS/Patrick Myers via Flickr

Swainson’s hawks are buteos like red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, they have large bodies with broad wings and short tails. However, Swainson’s hawks tend to be slimmer than other buteos, with longer wings as well. There are many variations in color among these hawks, with darker colored birds being more common in the west.

Overall they feature dark-brown upperparts with pale colored undersides. Males generally have gray heads while females have brown. Their underwings are distinctly colored with bright white plumage towards the body, and contrasting black feathers near the edges. 

Swainson’s hawk status in California: Classified as a species of concern due to habitat loss and changes in agricultural practices affecting their breeding grounds.

5. Rough-Legged Hawk

photo by: DickDaniels | CC 3.0 | wikicommons
  • Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
  • Length: 18.5- 20.5 in
  • Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
  • Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in

Non-breeding populations of rough-legged hawks are found in the north and along the eastern border of California during the winter. During the summer, they’re nesting in the Arctic, mostly north of the boreal forest, but in the winter they’re often spotted perched at the very top of a tall post or tree, or flying over open fields and marshes. They also like to hover while facing into the wind, searching for rodents and small animals down below. 

Rough-legged hawk (Image: Tom Koerner/USFWS | CC BY 2.0 | flickr)

Rough-legged hawks got their name due to the feathers that run down their legs. These feathers help them keep warm when they migrate back north. The only other raptor in North America that also has feathered legs is the Golden Eagle. Rough-legged hawks are buteos with long tails and long, narrow wings, when compared to other hawks.

Their bills are pretty small, too. They come in a range of color variations, but for the most part they have brown upperparts and pale undersides. The undersides of their tails are darker on the edge and pale towards the body. 

Rough-legged hawk status in California: Visitors during the winter, their conservation status is closely monitored due to their reliance on specific habitats that are vulnerable to climate change.

6. Ferruginous Hawk 

Image: reitz27 |
  • Scientific name: Buteo regalis
  • Length: 22.1-27.2 in
  • Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz
  • Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in

Ferruginous hawks are the largest hawks in North America. They’re buteos with long, wings and large bodies and heads. Most ferruginous hawks are light colored throughout their undersides, with rusty-red plumage on their wings and back.

This distinct rusty color is what earned them the name, “ferruginous.” There are also dark morph ferruginous hawks that have an even deeper, rusty-brown coloration.

ferruginous hawk
Ferruginous Hawk | image by Alan Schmierer via Flickr

Unfortunately, the status of these birds is threatened, and much of their population has declined. According to Audubon, their current population may be less than 4,000 pairs. However, it’s possible to find non-breeding ferruginous hawks during the winter in California.

They occupy open lands such as prairies, plains, and grasslands, where they’re often perched up high, or soaring above with their wings held in a distinct raised v-shape. 

Ferruginous hawk status in California: Faces conservation challenges with a population that has seen declines, emphasizing the need for habitat protection and monitoring.

7. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier |
  • Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
  • Length: 18.1-19.7 in
  • Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in

Non-breeding populations of northern harriers are found throughout the state of California. Look for them in marshes, prairies, fields, and grasslands where they tend to glide close to the ground in the pursuit of rodents such as mice and voles.

Their flat faces and short, small bills look owl-like. It’s also believed that these hawks rely on their superior sense of hearing to locate prey, much like how an owl hunts as well. 

northern harrier face
northern harrier

Northern harriers are the only harrier species in North America. They’re unique hawks with a distinct silhouette — slender bodies with long tails and broad wings. Like ferruginous hawks, northern harriers also tend to fly with their wings held in a v-shape.

While female hawks are brown on their uppers and white below with brown streaking, males are gray with white undersides. Both sexes have black banding on the tail, as well as a white patch on their rears that helps identify them in flight. 

Northern harrier status in California: Listed as a species of concern in some areas due to habitat degradation, requiring continued conservation efforts.

8. Northern Goshawk  

photo by: Iosto Doneddu | CC 2.0 | wikicommons
  • Scientific name: Accipiter gentilis
  • Length: 20.9-25.2 in
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in

While some year-round populations of northern goshawks are found in the northern region of California, for most of the state only non-breeding hawks are found during the winter, and these birds are only scarce in number.

To make locating them even more difficult, northern goshawks are secretive in nature and live to stay inside dense, usually coniferous, forests.

Northern Goshawk (Image: Jevgenijs Slihto | CC BY 2.0 | flickr)

Here, they use stealth and high vantage points to ambush prey — mostly medium-sized birds like crows and small mammals. They’re such successful predators, even Attila the Hun had a depiction of a northern goshawk on his helmet. 

Northern goshawks are the largest accipiter hawks. They have bulky bodies, long, broad wings for an accipiter, and long tails. Their heads are a dark gray and they have a white stripes that run over their red-orange eyes, giving them the look of having eyebrows. The rest of their plumage is gray above and pale below, with lots of fine, dark gray barring. 

Northern goshawk status in California: Though secretive and less visible, they are considered a sensitive species, requiring old-growth forests that are diminishing.

9. Sharp-Shinned Hawk 

Image: fergyn6ssq |
  • Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
  • Length: 9.4-13.4 in
  • Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
  • Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in

Where northern goshawks are the largest accipiters, Sharp-Shinned hawks are the smallest accipiters, and the smallest hawk in general in North America. Non-breeding populations are found in the majority of California during the winter, though some year-round residents may occupy sections in the north.

Sharp-shinned hawks look very similar to Cooper’s hawks, and even birding experts sometimes have problems telling them apart. They both have nearly identical coloration — gray upper-parts and pale undersides with orange barring. 

sharp shinned hawk perched snowy day
sharp-shinned hawk

Despite their small size, sharp-shinned hawks have a large personality. Like other accipiters, birds are an important part of their diet. They use their short wings and long tails to swiftly navigate crowded forests as they chase after songbirds.

Sharp-shinned hawks are also infamous for stalking backyard bird feeders and taking advantage of the unsuspecting groups of small birds that gather there. 

Sharp-shinned hawk status in California: While widespread, their populations are susceptible to changes in prey abundance and habitat conditions, warranting monitoring.

More rare species, vagrants

Harris’s Hawk

Harris’s Hawk
  • Scientific name: Parabuteo unicinctus
  • Length: 18-24 inches
  • Weight: 1.3-2.4 lbs
  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.9 inches

The Harris’s Hawk is more widespread in Mexico but can be spotted in the southwestern United States, occasionally in southern parts of California. This hawk thrives in desert regions, adapting well to arid climates. Although sightings in California are less frequent compared to Arizona and Texas, it presents a unique viewing opportunity for birdwatchers interested in observing its social hunting practices.

This raptor is identifiable by its dark brown plumage, chestnut-red shoulders and legs, white rump, and black-tipped tail. In the ecosystems where it is found, the Harris’s Hawk plays a role in controlling rodent and small mammal populations. Notably, outside the breeding season, these hawks may form groups or ally with other raptors for hunting, demonstrating their adaptability and intelligence.

Zone-tailed Hawk

  • Scientific name: Buteo albonotatus
  • Length: 18-22 inches
  • Weight: 1.1-2.2 lbs
  • Wingspan: 48-56 inches

The Zone-tailed Hawk, rare in California, closely resembles the Turkey Vulture in flight behavior and appearance. This similarity aids in surprising its prey, including small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Sightings, though infrequent, typically occur in Southern California’s wooded or open areas, where it utilizes thermal updrafts for soaring.

Its appearance in California is more common during migration, indicating the state is part of its migratory route rather than a primary residence. Birdwatchers value sightings of this elusive hawk, as each observation contributes to understanding its habits and range.

3 thoughts on “9 Types of Hawks in California (Pictures)”

  1. Hi Talia, I live in Santa Clarita California on a rural Road and we have quite a few raptors here but I just saw a hawk that I have never seen before. It was very large with long legs dark brown with the white chest that looked like it had a couple of droplets of brown paint coming down onto the chest it was gorgeous and extremely large but I have never seen one before and I don’t find it in the list of California or North American Hawks. Any ideas?

    • It’s likely a red-tailed hawk, especially if you thought it was particularly large. Their plumage is so variable. If you are near any water it could also be an Osprey.


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