13 Hawks in California – Picture and ID Guide

Hawks are birds of prey and hunt and eat birds and small mammals, snakes, and frogs. They can see ultraviolet light, which helps them hunt down their prey.

There are 11 species of hawks recognized on state checklists as regularly occurring in California, and 2 additional species are considered rare or accidental.

To find Hawks head to woodland for the smaller hawks such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk or open grassland, marshes, or high ridges for the larger species.

This guide will help you identify the species of hawks in California according to avibase and ordered by the number of sighting recorded on ebird. Some of these birds migrate, and some remain all year, and this information is included for each species.

Hawks that are more common in summer in California include the Swainson’s Hawk, and hawks that are more common in winter are Red-tailed Hawk and Northern Harrier.

There are 13 species of Hawk in California:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk
  2. Red-shouldered Hawk
  3. Cooper’s Hawk
  4. Northern Harrier
  5. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  6. Swainson’s Hawk
  7. Ferruginous Hawk
  8. Rough-legged Hawk
  9. Northern Goshawk
  10. Broad-winged Hawk
  11. Zone-tailed Hawk
  12. Gray Hawk
  13. Common Black Hawk

The 13 Species of Hawk in California:

1. Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks are the most frequently spotted hawks in California and appear in 21% of checklists submitted by bird watchers in summer and 31% in winter.

As their name suggests, Red-tailed Hawks have a distinctive short, wide red tail. They are large, with broad, rounded wings. Most Red-tailed Hawks are brown on the back and pale underneath.

They are also the easiest to spot, often on long car journeys, as they circle slowly over open fields looking for prey such as small mammals, birds, and reptiles. You can also see them perched on telephone poles.

Male

  • Length: 17.7-22.1 in (45-56 cm)
  • Weight: 24.3-45.9 oz (690-1300 g)
  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)

Female

  • Length: 19.7-25.6 in (50-65 cm)
  • Weight: 31.8-51.5 oz (900-1460 g)
  • Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)

Red-tailed Hawk Call:

Credit: Phoenix Birder, XC493105. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/493105.

The high-pitched descending raspy-screech sound of the Red-tailed Hawk is often used in movies for all birds of prey.

Red-tailed Hawks remain resident in the US and Mexico, but those birds in Alaska, Canada, and the northern Great Plains fly south for winter.

Nests are high in tall trees, cliff ledges, and sometimes on tall buildings or towers. They lay 2-3 whitish, brown-spotted eggs.

2. Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk for identification

Red-shouldered Hawks are the second most frequently spotted hawks in summer and winter in California and appear in 10% and 14% of checklists, respectively.

Red-shouldered Hawks are distinctly marked, with dark and white checkered wings and reddish barring on the breast. They are medium-sized, between the size of a crow and a swan with a strongly banded tail. They make a loud cack-cack-cack-cack call.

  • Length: 16.9-24.0 in (43-61 cm)
  • Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz (486-774 g)
  • Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in (94-111 cm)

Red-shouldered Hawk Call:

Credit: Phoenix Birder, XC498625. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/498625.

Red-shouldered Hawks are resident in eastern states, but those in the Northeast may migrate further south for winter. These hawks are also residents on the West Coast.

They tend to be seen near wet forests hunting along a stream or pond. Their prey is mammals and frogs or snakes.

Nests are often reused each year in a broad-leaved tree near water. They lay 2-5 white or bluish eggs.

3. Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawks are residents of California all year, and they are a little more commonly spotted in winter, appearing in 8% of checklists submitted by bird watchers. In summer, they are recorded in 7% of checklists.

The Cooper’s Hawk looks very similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk but is bigger at about the size of a crow. They can be hard to identify between them as they have the same blue-gray back and red-orange breast and also with dark bands on the tail.

They have a larger head that projects well beyond the wings, unlike the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Male

  • Length: 14.6-15.3 in (37-39 cm)
  • Weight: 7.8-14.5 oz (220-410 g)
  • Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in (62-90 cm)

Female

  • Length: 16.5-17.7 in (42-45 cm)
  • Weight: 11.6-24.0 oz (330-680 g)
  • Wingspan: 29.5-35.4 in (75-90 cm)
Credit: Manuel Grosselet, XC619260. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/619260.

Cooper’s Hawks remain resident over most of the US, but some in the north of the range, including Canada, migrate south for the winter down as far as Mexico and Honduras.

Look out for them at the edge of forests, but they can also be seen at feeders looking for an easy meal.

They feed on medium-sized birds and small mammals and nest in tall trees, often on top of an old nest of a large bird or clump of mistletoe. They lay 2-6 pale blue to bluish-white eggs.

4. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier Hawk for identification

Northern Harriers are more commonly spotted in California during winter. Then they fly north for the breeding season all the way to Canada. They appear in 10% of winter checklists.

In summer a small amount of Northern Harriers remain in California but most migrate, they are recorded in 2% of checklists at this time of year.

Northern Harriers are slender with long broad wings and are between the size of a crow and a goose. They often fly with the tips of their wings higher than their bodies in a v-shape. 

Females are brown, and males are gray above and white below, and they have a white rump patch.

  • Length: 18.1-19.7 in (46-50 cm)
  • Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz (300-750 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in (102-118 cm)
Credit: James Bradley, XC326879. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/326879.

Northern Harriers that breed in Alaska, Canada, the northern Great Plains, and the Northeast before migrating south for the winter to southern states, Mexico and Central America. Those in the middle of the range remain all year.

This slim, longed-tailed hawk can be seen gliding low over grassland or marshes. 

Northern Harriers mostly eat small mammals and small birds. They nest on the ground in dense vegetation such as reeds, willows, or brushtails. They lay 4-5 dull white eggs.

5. Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk for identification

Sharp-shinned Hawks can be found throughout California during winter, and they appear in 3% of winter checklists. They migrate in September and April.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawks are small hawks with blue-gray across the back and red-orange breasts. They have dark bands across their tails.

The females are a third larger than the male. They have long square-ended tails, short rounded wings, and small heads.

  • Length: 9.4-13.4 in (24-34 cm)
  • Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz (87-218 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in (43-56 cm)
Credit: Thiago Augusto Mendes Pinheiro, XC600402. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/600402.

Sharp-shined Hawks that breed in Canada and some northern states migrate south. Those birds in the Appalachians and Western Mountains may remain all year.

Sharp-shined Hawks are very secretive but can be seen as they fly across open areas at the edges of forests. They are very agile and can speed through dense woods to catch their prey in flight, usually songbirds. 

They can sometimes be seen near feeders catching small birds, but if you have problems with them in your backyard, remove the feeder for a few weeks.

Sharp-shinned Hawks pluck their prey on a stump or low branch before eating it. They usually eat songbirds about the size of a robin.

Nests of the Sharp-shinned Hawk are often in conifer trees in dense cover, usually towards the top of tall trees. The nest is quite large, being 1-2 feet in diameter and 4-6 inches deep. They lay 3-8 white or pale-blue mottled eggs.

6. Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawks can be seen in California during summer, between April and November, for their breeding season, and they appear in 3% of summer checklists.

Swainson’s Hawks are long-winged hawks with short tails and pointed wingtips. They are usually brown or gray mottled on the back and with lighter bellies and brown or red chests.

When in flight, you can see the contrast between the black flight feathers on the lower edges of the wings and tips and the white upper part of the wing (called the linings).

  • Length: 18.9-22.1 in (48-56 cm)
  • Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz (693-1367 g)
Credit: Bruce Lagerquist, XC468974. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/468974.

Swainson’s Hawks can be found in open country in the West and over the Great Plains in the summer before heading to South America for winter in large flocks, reaching into the thousands. They breed as far as British Columbia and Alaska and in the West from the Pacific to the Midwest.

May and September are the best times to see these hawks as they migrate long distances and are famous for providing spectacular displays in the tens of thousands of birds during the day.

Swainson’s Hawks hunt for rodents by perching on any high points, such as utility poles or fences, making them easier to spot in the relatively flat lands where they hunt. If no high points are available, they may be found on the ground in grassland and fields, hunting for insects.

They may also eat Burrowing Owls in areas where they are abundant, but they are not fussy and eat anything from snakes and lizards to bats, mice, and rabbits or crickets and dragonflies.

There are not many nest sites in the open country for Swainson’s Hawks, so they use any trees near fields or low mesquite bushes and power poles. The nests are a large collection of twigs and sticks and can be up to 2 feet wide and up to a foot high. The inside of the nest is lined with softer material, such as dung, bark, wool, and grass.

7. Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawks can only be spotted in California during winter, and they appear in 2% of winter checklists. They are seen in areas around Sacramento, San Francisco, and Bakersfield.

Ferruginous Hawks are the largest hawks in North America. They have large heads and long wings. To make identification harder, they come in a light and a dark morph, which can vary quite considerably in the color pattern.

The more common light morph Ferruginous Hawks are white underneath on the wings, belly, and head. Their backs and the upper side of the wings are a rusty brown, and they have darker legs. Immature light morphs have more brown spotting on the belly and legs.

Dark morphs are much rarer, and they have brown bellies and under the wings, except for white flight feathers on the wingtips and tail.

  • Length: 22.1-27.2 in (56-69 cm)
  • Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz (977-2074 g)
  • Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in (133-142 cm)
Credit: Paul Marvin, XC419204. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/419204.

Ferruginous Hawks are another species of hawk that lives in the open country of the West. They breed as far north as Southern Canada and down to Nevada and Utah. In winter, they move short distances to Southern States and Mexico. Some birds may remain residents all year in the middle of their range.

You can spot Ferruginous Hawks in grassland and shrublands in the low country. They do not cross the Rockies, even when migrating. Small mammals make up the majority of their diet, and depending on what is available, they eat jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits in the West and ground squirrels and prairie dogs in the East.

They are daytime hunters and hunt both on the wing and by perching or even hunting on the ground.

Their nests are very large and can measure 3 feet high and 3 feet across, and they can lay up to 8 eggs.

8. Rough-legged Hawk

Rough Legged Hawk

Although quite rare in California, Rough-legged Hawks are found in the north and along the eastern border of the state during winter.

The feathered legs give the Rough-legged Hawks their name and help to keep them warm in the arctic. They are fairly large hawks, between the size of a crow and a goose. 

This predominantly dark-drown species occurs in light and dark forms, with dark patches at the bend of the wing, end of their tails, and across the belly. They have broad wings that are relatively long and narrow compared to other hawks.

  • Length: 18.5-20.5 in (47-52 cm)
  • Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz (715-1400 g)
  • Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in (132-138 cm)
Credit: Tayler Brooks, XC113497. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/113497.

Rough-legged Hawks breed in Alaska and northern Canada before migrating to the US for winter. They are usually sighted hovering over marshes and open fields or perched on a pole.

Lemmings and voles provide most of the prey for Rough-legged Hawks. Voles, mice, ground squirrels, and other small mammals provide winter prey in states such as West Virginia. Nests are usually on a high cliff ledge, and they lay 3-5 pale bluish-white eggs.

9. Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawks are rare hawks in California, but they are spotted in the state all year, especially in Lassen National Forest, Plumas National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, and Sequoia National Forest.

Northern Goshawks are the bigger and fiercer relative of the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. They are mostly gray with short, broad wings and a long tail and have a white stripe over their yellow eyes.

  • Length: 20.9-25.2 in (53-64 cm)
  • Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz (631-1364 g)
  • Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in (103-117 cm)
Credit: Tim Spahr, XC183577. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/183577.

Northern Goshawks are residents in Alaska, Canada, and the mountainous west. Some younger birds may migrate to Central States during the winter.

They live in large forests, so they are hard to find, especially as they are very secretive and can be aggressive if you get too close to a nest.

Northern Goshawks live in large tracks of mostly coniferous or mixed forests. They watch for prey on high perches and mostly eat medium-sized birds and small mammals.

Northern Goshawks prepare up to eight nests and lay between 2-4 bluish-white eggs.

10. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk for identification

Broad-winged Hawks are rare in California, but they have been spotted in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose.

The Broad-winged Hawk is a compact, stocky bird between the size of a crow and goose. They have reddish-brown heads, barred breasts, and narrowly banded short square tails.

  • Length: 13.4-17.3 in (34-44 cm)
  • Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz (265-560 g)
  • Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in (81-100 cm)
Credit: Guillermo Funes, XC198375. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/198375.

Broad-winged Hawks breed in the Eastern US and Canada before migrating in large numbers to Central and South America in a swirling flock called a kettle. As a result, the migration in the fall is often the best chance to see them.

Hunting from a perch, often on the edge of woods or water, these hawks eat small mammals, frogs, snakes, and even young turtles.

The Broad-winged Hawk often reuses the nest of another animal, such as a crow or squirrel, and lays 2-3 whitish eggs.

11. Zone-tailed hawk

Zone-tailed Hawks are very rare hawks in California, but they were spotted around Los Angeles in 2021.

Zone-tailed Hawks are dark, almost black hawks with barring on the flight feathers’ underside and white bands across the tail.

  • Male
    • Length: 17.7-22.1 in (45-56 cm)
    • Weight: 21.4-23.5 oz (607-667 g)
    • Wingspan: 46.9-55.1 in (119-140 cm)
  • Female
    • Weight: 29.8-33.0 oz (845-937 g)
    • Wingspan: 46.9-55.1 in (119-140 cm)
Credit: Vicki Dern, XC380718. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/380718.

Zone-tailed Hawks are another Hawk that can only be spotted in a few states along the border during the breeding season. In winter, they migrate further south into Mexico. In South America, Zone-tailed Hawks remain all year.

They hunt along canyons and cliffs, often in high elevations, and can be spotted soaring over desert and scrub. They will also hunt down to coastal plains.

Mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians make up the diet of Zone-tailed Hawks. They hunt by flying low and using the landscape as a screen to hide them until it’s too late.

12. Gray hawk

Gray Hawks are considered an accidental species in California, and they were last spotted in Palo Verde Ecological Reserve back in 2018.

Gray Hawks are light gray in color with solid gray on the upper parts, barred on the chest and belly. Their tails are long and have three white bands against black. They have short, broad wings and are smaller hawks in this family.

  • Length: 18–24 in (46–61 cm)
  • Weight: 13.8-16.6 oz (391-470 g)
Credit: Scott Crabtree, XC577789. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/577789.

Gray Hawks migrate and spend the summer breeding in Central America, Mexico, and Southern Texas, and Arizona.

Try looking for Gray hawks in cottonwood and willow woods, with streams or rivers nearby. They can be spotted soaring over open areas or perched on branches waiting patiently for lizards.

13. Common Black Hawk

Common Black Hawks are considered an accidental species in California, but they have been spotted in Santa Rosa Creek Trail and Delta Pond in 2020.

Common Black Hawks have broad wings, short tails, long legs, and large bodies. They are black, except for a white band across the tail.

  • Length: 17 – 21 in (43 – 53)
  • Weight: 33oz (930g)
Credit: Kent Livezey, XC559226. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/559226.

They can be spotted along the southern border from California to Texas, mostly in summer. However, they usually remain resident all year in their range in Mexico and Central America.

Although called ‘common’, they are not very common in the United States, and only about 250 pairs are thought to exist here.

They hunt along streams near woods, looking for crabs, fish, frogs, and lizards, but they will also hunt birds and small mammals.

How Frequently Hawks are Spotted in California in Summer and Winter

Checklists for the state are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted. These lists show which Hawks are most commonly recorded on checklists for California on ebird in summer and winter.

Hawks in California in Summer:

Red-tailed Hawk 21.6%
Red-shouldered Hawk 10.7%
Cooper’s Hawk 6.6%
Northern Harrier 2.8%
Swainson’s Hawk 2.6%
Sharp-shinned Hawk 0.3%
Northern Goshawk 0.1%
Zone-tailed Hawk <0.1%
Common Black Hawk <0.1%
Broad-winged Hawk <0.1%
Ferruginous Hawk <0.1%
Rough-legged Hawk <0.1%
Gray Hawk <0.1%

Hawks in California in Winter:

Red-tailed Hawk 31.7%
Red-shouldered Hawk 14.7%
Northern Harrier 10.6%
Cooper’s Hawk 7.8%
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3.0%
Ferruginous Hawk 2.1%
Rough-legged Hawk 0.6%
Swainson’s Hawk 0.1%
Zone-tailed Hawk 0.1%
Gray Hawk <0.1%
Broad-winged Hawk <0.1%
Northern Goshawk <0.1%
Common Black Hawk <0.1%