Look up! There are lots of hawks in Southern California, and spotting one is always a thrill. If you have recently seen a magnificent bird of prey soaring above you and wondered what it was, I am here to help!
I have been a huge fan of identifying birds of prey ever since I took a class on Captive Raptor Management at UC Davis many moons ago. These special birds are truly wonderous to watch, and an important part of our ecosystem.
Here are 10 hawks in Southern California that you might spy when hiking, camping, or simply walking your neihgborhood. I have also included lots of pictures and distinguishing characteristics to help you identify these incredible birds.
8 Hawks in Southern California and How to Identify Them
1. Red-Tailed Hawk
One of the most common hawks in Southern California is the Red-tailed Hawk. It is also one of the easiest birds of prey to identify thanks to its signature red tail, though sometimes the tail does have a grayish tone.
They are commonly seen throughout Southern California, from the coastline to the desert, and in both wild and urban areas.
Red-tailed Hawks eat a wide variety of rodents, rabbits, lizards, snakes, insects, and even fish! You will often see them perched on fence posts, telephone poles, or soaring high above showing off those red tails.
There is an exception to the “red tail rule”. Juveniles have lighter chests and their tails have evenly spaced brown and white bars on them. They generally lose their banded (or striped) tails when they are about 18 months old.
Red tailed-Hawks are excellent co-parents and work together to build their nest, incubate the eggs, and raise their young. Red-tailed hawks tend to lay 2-3 white eggs with brown spots at a time.
Young Red-tailed Hawks stay with their parents for about 10-12 weeks and generally fledge (begin to fly) around 45 days.
Red-tailed Hawks have distinctive screeches that will help you identify them as well. You can hear them here.
2. Ferruginous Hawk
Far less common than the Red-tailed Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk does use Southern California as a wintering destination. They can be spotted between late September and April in grasslands, sagebrush flats, desert scrub, and low foothills in Southwestern California.
This species is considered to be “threatened” due to habitat loss and hunting.
They generally prefer open, treeless areas and will roost on a lone tree in the area or even a utility pole. You will not find these raptors in urban areas or heavily treed regions because they do require those wide, open expanses in order to hunt.
They tend to eat small mammals that inhabit grasslands such as rabbits, squirrels, gophers, and mice. They will also eat birds and snakes.
Ferruginous Hawks are larger than Red-tailed Hawks. They have a wingspan around 55 inches and a length of 20-25 inches. They typically have a gray head, rust-colored shoulders and legs, and white underparts.
These hawk can be identified in flight by the V that forms as result of their rust legs and white underparts. Juveniles will have some brown spotting on their legs and stomach. Their is a darker morph version of the Ferruginous Hawk which is chocolate in color, but it is very rare.
One of the more interesting things about this hawk is their nests. They may start with an old nest, like a crow’s nest, and then make it much bigger and bulkier with lots of sticks and twigs, as well as cow dung. They often return to their nests year after year, growing them to huge sizes over time.
Back when bison roamed the West, Ferruginous Hawk’s built their nests with sticks and pieces of bison bones, and lined their nests with bison dung!
Ferruginous Hawks co-parent as well, but the mother does most of the nesting and the father does the bulk of the hunting.
When the chicks hatch (typically 2-4), the mother stays with them for the first three weeks. Father brings back food, mother feeds it to the chicks. Eventually, around thee weeks, both parents start hunting. The chicks fledge at 45 days and stay a few weeks longer after that to learn to hunt with their parents.
Listen to the sounds of a Ferruginous Hawk.
3. Red-Shouldered Hawk
The Red-shouldered Hawk is onother one of the most commonly spotted hawks in Southern California. This beautiful bird has a year-round population in Southern California.
It is commonly spotted in riparian woodlands, but it also makes an appearance in residential areas when there is bird feeder attracting song birds that it can easily hunt and eat. It also likes to hang out in eucalyptus groves and oak woodlands, both of which a relatively common in Southern California.
In addition to song birds in residential areas, these hawks also eat small mammals (like mice and voles), lizards, and snakes. They hunt from a perch, like a tree, and then swoop down to snag their prey when they spot it.
Red-shouldered hawks are easy to identify. They have red shoulders (it’s not just a clever name!) and a black and white bands on its wings and tail. These birds of prey are about the same size as a crow.
These hawks do return to the same nest year after year, so once you have found their “spot”, you can expect to see your new pals again next year. Their nests usually have 3-4 pale eggs that are blotched with brown and lavender.
Females tend to do the bulk of the nest incubating and watching while males do the bulk of the hunting. Young Red-shouldered Hawks fledge after about six weeks, but hang out with their parents for another 8-10 weeks to get fed and learn how to hunt.
Listen to the calls of the Red-shouldered Hawk.
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4. Cooper’s Hawk
The Coopers Hawk is a common hawk in urban and suburban areas. While their natural habitat is the forest, they have discovered that they have a taste for doves and pigeons, and they have plenty of both to eat if they stick to where the people are.
If you have a bird feeder, there is a chance that a Cooper’s Hawk might look at it as a smorgasbord, and we aren’t taking about the bird seed! If you do have a hawk that is suddenly using your bird feeder as a hunting ground, remove it for a week and the bird will move on.
Cooper’s Hawks are excellent flyers and move quickly through the air or vegetation to snag their prey. They kill it by squeezing it to death, but they have also been known to drown their prey as well.
One of the more gruesome facts about Cooper’s Hawks revolves around the fact that it likes to eat medium-sized birds, including their own!
A male Cooper’s hawk is much smaller than a female (they are both around crow size. Males are a small crow, females are a large crow), so it has to be very submissive to the female and send out calls letting her know it is a mate and not food.
Then, the male considers the submission (any thing to make you happy honey, just don’t eat me!) by building the nest and providing all the food for its mate and their young for three months until the young leave the nest.
Adult Cooper’s Hawks have bluish-gray backs, reddish chests, reddish-gold eyes and a blackish-gray cap on their heads. Their tails have black and gray banding with a white tip that is rounded. They have a long tail and shorter wings than a Red-tailed or Red-shouldered Hawk.
Juveniles have brown and white streaking on their chests (instead of the red) and their eyes are more yellow.
Cooper’s Hawks look very similar to the next hawk on our list, the Sharp-shinned Hawk and it can be tricky to tell them apart. Keep reading to learn more about how to tell who’s who!
Listen to the sounds that a Cooper’s Hawk makes.
5. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawks look, and in many ways behave, like Cooper’s Hawk, but they are smaller and more secretive.
Like the Cooper’s Hawk, they live in forests but have also adapted to live in urban and suburban areas which are home to lots of songbirds and bird feeders.
When the Sharp-shinned hawk catches their prey, the bang their future meal on a stump or low branch until they die. These hawks tend to eat smaller birds like robins or sparrows, but they will also eat small amphibians and mammals if available.
So how does one tell a Cooper’s Hawk from a Sharp-shinned Hawk? They both have bluish-gray backs, reddish chests, reddish-gold eyes and a blackish-gray cap on their heads. They both have long, banded tails. Even the juveniles have similar indentifiers!
Well, when they are in flight, it can be very difficult to tell these two hawks apart. Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller than Cooper’s Hawks but perspective is hard to gain when they are midair. The best identifier is that Sharp-shinned Hawks have square-edged tails while Cooper’s Hawks have rounded tails.
If you can see a the hawk perched, take a look at its head. The Sharp-shinned Hawk has a curved head and short neck. The Cooper’s Hawk has a flat head and slightly longer neck.
Unlike the Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharp-shinned Hawk does not have a year-round population in Southern California. These small hawks migrate from Canada and spend the colder months here. For these reasons, you won’t ever see a Sharp-shinned Hawk’s nest in our neck of the woods.
These are the sounds that a Sharp-shinned Hawk makes.
6. Northern Goshawk
One of the more rare hawks in Southern California is the Northern Goshawk. This bird is only really seen in the mountains of Los Padres National Forest around Mt. Pinos and Frazier Mountain in northern Ventura County. This is the moutainous area near the highest points of the famed I-5 Grapevine.
Goshawks like to build their nests in old-growth pine forests, and as we know, there aren’t a ton of those around in the area. Still, you can spot these birds in the Mt. Pinos area, which is a nice place for hiking and winter snow play. Just keep your eyes open while you explore.
Northern Goshawks are sit-and-wait predators. They will sit on a treetop and patiently wait until they spot prey like squirrels, woodpeckers, rabbits, or even small birds of prey. The do breed in monogamous pairs and have huge territorys of 2,000-8,000 acres. There are about 1,000 breeding pairs in the state.
The Northern Goshawk is larger than a crow and are fairly easy to identify. They are dark grey on top with a dark grey cap on their heads. Their underparts are more of a streaky light grey. They can also be colored more of a brownish grey. They have a distinct white eyebrow strip and their eye color is orange to red.
Juvenile Northern Goshawks are brown and more streaky than their older counterparts. Their eyes are yellow and the eyebrow strip is less distinct.
Here are the sounds that a Northern Goshawk makes.
7. Northern Harrier
Northern Harriers are spotted in Southern California in the winter, mainly over grasslands and marshes. This is a non-breeding population of hawks; they use Southern California as a wintering location before heading back north to the Pacific Northwest.
You are far more likely to see this bird in the rice fields or salt water marshes of Central and Northern California, but they have been spotted in marshy areas like the Newport Beach Back Bay, especially during the winter.
These birds are small and light, but their long wings and tails make them appear larger, around the size of a crow. As with nearly all hawks, the females are significantly larger than the males.
Females are different colors than the males. Males are gray on top and white underneath. They have black wing tips. Females are dark brown on top and have light brown streaky underparts. Both have a white patch near their rump which is a main identifier of this hawk in flight.
They both fly in a v-shape, with their wings higher than their bodies. They also hunt by sound and have a heart-shape facial disk that helps them locate their prey, just like owls. They mainly eat small mammals and birds that live in the marshy areas like mice, voles, and even small ducks.
Listen to the high-pitched calls of the Northern Harrier.
8. White-Tailed Kite
White-tailed Kites are some of the smallest hawks you will see in Southern California. They are typically crow-sized. The largest population of White-tailed Kites in North America is found in California, mainly in the grassy lowlands west of the desert.
They like farmland, wetlands, and open grasslands. They will roost in trees on the edges of these more open areas. When they aren’t breeding, you can often find White-tailed Kites roosting together in great numbers, sometimes up to 100 birds will hang out together in a small cluster of trees!
This bird eats mostly mice and voles, and hunts by hovering above the ground with its wings flapping and its head tipped down. This behavior is called “kiting”. When it sees movement of a mouse or vole on the ground, it then darts down to grab it.
White-tailed kites are usually fairly easy to identify thanks to their distinct coloring. They have white tails (it’s not just a clever name!), white heads, gray bodies, white underparts, and black shoulder patches. Eyes are generally orange or red.
Females lay about four eggs at a time which are creamy white with some brown. The female incubates the eggs and stays with them until they are ready to fly. Males hunt and bring food. Young White-tailed Kites begin to fly after about a month and will return to the nest for a coupel more weeks to be fed and to sleep.