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Bordering Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, California has a diverse mixture of flora and fauna, including dozens of different raptors. Chief among these birds of prey are more than a dozen different species of hawk, from the tiny sharp-shinned hawk to the giant ferruginous hawk. Below, we have listed 14 species of hawk that are indigenous to the state of California.
The most common of hawk species in North America, the red-tailed hawk is still impressive, nevertheless. Only the ferruginous hawk is larger, with the red-tailed hawk measuring nearly 50 inches and weighing about 2.75 pounds.
The hawk has a recognizable raspy screech. It has a red tail, as the species name suggests, and a pale underbelly, which is the area you’re most likely to see when spotting them. Usually solitary in nature, they live in high trees and watch for their prey, which includes mice and voles. The red-tailed hawk can live up to 15 years.
The red-shouldered hawk is a large bird, measuring just under 40 inches and weighing as much as 1.5 pounds. They live to approximately 16 years of age, with some being recorded at 25 years and older. As well as small reptiles, the species feeds on reptiles and amphibians.
Found across the US, the Californian red-shouldered hawk tends to be more colorful than its compatriots from the eastern states. Look for brown and white wings with an orange underbelly. This hawk tends to be found in wooded areas.
The cooper’s hawk is a medium-sized bird, with a wingspan of around 31.5 inches and weighing in at an average of just over 1 pound. The male actually tends to be a little smaller than the female. With a life expectancy of 12 years, the cooper’s hawk feeds on mice and squirrels, and will occasionally eat smaller birds, too.
The population of cooper’s hawk is growing rapidly, and it could overtake the red-tailed hawk for the most common in California. The hawk is gray with orange barring and they have a short, rounded tail. These defensive birds live in forested areas but may also be seen in suburban areas.
The Swainson is a large bird, almost as large as the red-tailed hawk. It has a wingspan of around 47 inches and weighs around 2.6 pounds. The Swainson has a long tail and wide wings. Its contrasting dark feathers and white underside make it a somewhat intimidating-looking hawk, especially to the mammals and insects that it feeds on.
Most commonly seen in grasslands and open spaces, these birds can even be seen in the Mojave Desert and will live around 17 years.
The rough-legged hawk is another large bird. It has a wingspan of approximately 51 inches and can weigh as much as 2.8 pounds. It feeds on small rodents and will live up to 18 years.
Found around cliffs and in some forests, the rough-legged hawk can come in any of a range of colors and markings, and they can fly very high making them difficult to spot unless you know what to look for.
The ferruginous hawk is a large bird, generally considered to be the largest of the Californian species. It has a wingspan of approximately 55 inches and mature adults can weigh as much as 4.4 pounds. They will live up to 20 years and feed on small mammals.
The size of the ferruginous hawk means that it stands out better than most species, and this is further aided by the pale underbelly. They build very complicated nests and they live in rural areas of California.
The northern harrier has wings measuring 43 inches and the bird weighs around 3 pounds with the female weighing more than the male. Its feathers are gray on top and it has black wingtips with a lighter underbelly. This medium-sized hawk will feed on small mammals and rodents.
Commonly found in grasslands and marshes, the northern harrier eats on the ground and perches on low platforms. They also hunt low to the ground, so can be quite easy to spot if you’re in the right location.
The northern goshawk is considered a medium-sized hawk. It has a wingspan of 43 inches and weighs 2.65 pounds. It can live around 17 years and feeds on smaller birds and they prefer to nest in forested areas, preferring a spot with some natural water nearby. As a result, they will also eat amphibians and fish, on occasion.
Rare in southern California, you are more likely to see the goshawk in the north and during the summer months.
The sharp-shinned hawk is a small bird. It has a wingspan of just 19.6 inches and 0.3 pounds. It feeds on robins, thrushes, and small birds, and it has long legs but short wings. It is a skill and acrobatic flyer. This is another species where the female is actually larger than the male: in fact, about one-third larger.
The light gray sharp-shinned hawk has an orange underbelly and they live in thick trees. Their chosen habitat, combined with their agility and fast-flying, makes them difficult to spot in the wild.
The broad-winged hawk, with its 35-inch wingspan and weighing just under 1 pound, is a medium-sized bird. They are a red color with black and white barring on their tails. They feed on small mammals and insects, and the broad-winged hawk lives in marshes as well as forests and woodlands.
Your best opportunity to catch sight of a broad-winged hawk us during their migratory flights in September and October.
With a 47-inch wingspan and weighing 1.65 pounds, the medium-sized zone-tailed hawk is black with silver barring and white on their tails. They live in large trees, typically in mountainous regions or in deserts. They can live alongside rivers and other waterways.
A rare breed in California, you are unlikely to spot a zone-tailed hawk as it perches, and your best bet to spot this beautiful hawk is in flight.
The medium harris’s hawk is a brown hawk with bright-colored shoulders. Its wings measure 39 inches across and the bird weighs about 1.3 pounds. It feeds on small mammals, rodents, and some smaller birds and it has an angry-sounding call that is considered distinctive.
They typically nest in tall trees, but will sometimes opt for manmade buildings. They especially like scrubland are most often found on the border of the US and Mexico.
The gray hawk is a medium-sized bird, roughly the same size and build as the harris hawk. It has a wingspan of 39 inches and weighing approximately 1.3 pounds. It has a similar diet, too, feeding on small mammals, rodents, and small birds.
The bird is gray, with lighter colors underneath. It can be found in the open country and on the edges of forests.
With its 47-inch wings and 1.7-pound weight, the common black hawk is a medium-sized bird that has long wings and a short tail. It is called the common black hawk because it is entirely black: the only distinctive marking on the bird is a white band on the tail.
The common black hawk eats snakes, frogs, and fish, living in mangroves and large trees near water. The species is rare, but you may find it in cottonwood trees.
The 14 species of hawks above can be found in California. Some species, like the red-tailed hawk, are common and can be found relatively easily, while the northern goshawk and the zone-tailed hawk are more difficult to locate and see. Look for their typical habitat and bear in mind their typical diet if you want to increase the chances of finding any of the breeds in the list.
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Featured Image Credit: TheOtherKev, Pixabay
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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