California is a state in the western United States, reaching from the border of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.
California’s location makes the state attractive to a host of residents, visitors, and a vast array of birdlife.
This desirable terrain includes cliffs, beaches, forests, farmland, and mountains. Some of the most famous landmarks include the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mojave Desert.
California is known for its Mediterranean climate with dry summers and sometimes rainy winters. The sea usually maintains an attractive temperature across California, contributing to warm winters and cool summers.
California is home to an impressive 280 state parks, making their state park system one of the biggest and most diverse state parks systems in the world.
In California, you will find an expansive 13 species of hawks!
You are most likely to observe the Red-Tailed Hawk, but least likely to see the Zone-Tailed Hawk.
Below are individual profiles for each of the species with their unique descriptions and locations where you are most likely to see them.
What Hawks can be seen in California?
Table of Contents
1. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Robins and Thrushes
The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is a small species of hawk, with the males being famed for being the smallest in the United States.
Interestingly, the females Sharp-Shinned hawks are estimated as larger by about one-third. Sharp-Shinned Hawks have short, round wings and square tails.
Adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks have pale, gray feathers and pale orange underparts.
Young Sharp-Shinned Hawks are streaky brown and have white feathers underneath.
With this population increasing as well, they breed in extensive forests, and live well-hidden in thick trees and coniferous forests.
Sharp-Shinned Hawks have two easily identifiable calls, including a ‘ki-ki’ sound, and a piercing shriek.
Sharp-Shinned Hawks can be observed year-round in California on the edges of forests, in open woodlands, and other areas that have tall trees or open grounds.
2. Cooper’s Hawk
Up to 12 years
Small Birds, Mice & Squirrels
Cooper’s Hawks are small to medium sized, and commonly, the males are smaller than the females.
Cooper’s Hawks have quite short, rounded wings with a rounded tail. The mature hawks are gray with pale orange barring while the juveniles are more of a brown color.
This rapidly expanding population of Cooper’s Hawks live in forests, and among woodlands, while they have also been spotted in mountains, which are quite populous in California.
These hawks build their nests in forested areas on tree branches and are highly defensive.
Cooper’s Hawks are quiet during early spring when they typically breed. However, the most common call is a loud ‘cak-cak-cak’ sound.
They breed in forested areas and can also be common in suburban areas. The best chance to spot a Cooper’s Hawk is during the autumn months, usually in late August.
3. Northern Goshawk
Mammals, reptiles & insects
Northern Goshawks are medium to large in size.
Adults are pastel gray, while young Goshawks have streaky brown feathers.
Goshawks can be pinpointed from their quick and repetitive ‘ki-ki-ki’ calling sounds.
They are seen building their nests in forests, often in cone-bearing trees. However, it is important to establish a safe distance from these birds because Goshawks are territorially defensive.
Goshawks only breed in northern mountain ranges and in the southern portion of the Los Padres National Forest.
Though the hawks are prominent in the north, they are rare in southern California.
Goshawks breed in April through the late summer, which is the optimum opportunity to see a Northern Goshawk. They can often be found in near nests year-round in warmer southern climates.
4. Red-Shouldered Hawk
Small mammals, reptiles & amphibians
Red-Shouldered Hawks are a large bird with a long tail and brightly colored feathers.
In fact, the hawks in California are more richly colored with a dark orange than hawks in eastern states.
Adult hawks have complex color patterns with wings that are brown and white with orange underparts.
Young hawks differ in color however, they are known to have brown backs and white underparts. Red-Shouldered Hawks prefer forested areas where they can be seen perched ready for their prey.
Their nests can be seen in tree trunks near wetlands and marshes. The Red-Shouldered Hawk has a distinctive ‘kee-aah’ sounding call.
Interestingly, the first note is higher-pitched than the second–and this sound can be easily identified.
The best opportunity to spot a Red-Shouldered Hawk is in the autumn when they usually migrate.
During their annual migration, they can be seen high in the sky or in forests or on wires.
5. Broad-Winged Hawk
Up to 20 years
Small mammals & insects
Broad-Winged Hawks are small-medium sized birds.
Mature hawks have solid, reddish brown feathers above, featuring a bar on their tails that is black and white.
Juvenile hawks are similar, but less distinctive–they tend to have light colored feathers and thinner tails.
During the summer months, these hawks offer shrill, high octave whistles; and the males actually have a higher sounding call than the female Broad-Wing.
Broad-winged hawks breed between April and August while they build their nests in late April through mid-May.
These hawks can be seen nesting in forests, woodlands, and nearby marshes. September and October are the perfect months to observe Broad-Winged migration in vast flocks
6. Swainson’s Hawk
Mammals & Insects
Swainson’s Hawks are large birds, with broad wings and short tails.
This species is known for their contrasting dark-colored feathers and white throat with white underparts.
This species can also vary with regard to color–being pale to being brown all over. Male hawks are known for their cries that are a high pitched ‘kreeeeee’ sound when they are in flights.
Females offer a similar, but low pitched cry when food is brought to the nest.
These hawks are prominent in grasslands, however they also spend time perched in open areas where they can easily spot their prey.
Abundant in the western United States, Swainson’s hawks can usually be seen along the southern coast of California, and are sometimes spotted in the Mojave deserts.
7. Red-Tailed Hawk
Small mammals, mice & voles
Red-Tailed Hawks are notably the most common hawk in North America, while they rank second for the largest species of hawk.
As their name suggests, Red-Tailed Hawks have distinctive red tails, while their underparts have pale colored feathers.
It’s worth mentioning that only adults have red tails, juveniles do not have red tails. Red-Tailed hawks have a recognizable, raspy sounding ‘kee-eeeee-arr’ call.
During mating season, the call changes to a loud, piercing cry. Mating season takes place in early spring, in which the males take flight high in the air to attract female partners.
Otherwise, Red-Tails are more solitary in nature but can be seen in large trees in open fields during the summer.
They take habitat in large nests while they await their prey.
8. Rough-Legged Hawk
Up to 18 years
Rough-Legged Hawks are a medium-large bird with broad, narrow wings.
These hawks can have diverse colors, displaying unique feather patterns. Rough-Legged Hawks typically have a brown-black body with white feathers pattern on their tails.
A Rough-Legged Hawks call is said to resemble a loud mew or a soft hiss.
They build their nests with a various collection of sticks and usually build them around cliffs or low forests.
These hawks are commonly observed in fields and marshes.
You are likely to find a Rough-Legged Hawk during the summer months, flying and diving high in the sky.
Though Rough -Legged Hawks breed in the arctic, you’ll most likely observe these hawks in the summer nesting on the abundant cliffs around California.
9. Ferruginous hawk
The Ferruginous Hawk is a large bird with pale feathers on their wings and on their underbellies.
They also have rust colored feathers along their legs and bellies.
Ferruginous Hawks are fond of the dry open country, but are also noted to take habitat in low-density forests where they build extravagant nests with large sticks, grass, and bark.
Mature hawks give a hoarse scream for their call, while juveniles can be recognized by their high-pitched cries resembling a ‘cheep’ sound.
Spotting the Ferruginous Hawk is most likely in rural areas of Southern California.
10. Zone-Tailed Hawk
Other birds, sometimes lizards
Zone-Tailed Hawks are a medium sized hawk, and are generally black, flaunting silver bars on their feathers, and white on their tails. Immature hawks have a gray and black tail.
Mature Zone-Tailed Hawks commonly have a high-pitched scream, resembling a ‘kreeee’ sound.
Additionally, there may be yapping calls during nesting season in March and April.
Zone-Tailed hawks take habitat in very large trees, in mountains, deserts, and sometimes along rivers or near cliffs.
They prefer areas that are isolated and in large vicinities and aggressively defend their nesting places.
You will most likely see these hawks in flight, as they are rarely seen perched–and they are very rarely seen in California.
11. Harris's Hawk
Small mammals, birds & rodents
Harris’s Hawk is a medium-large bird that is overall, a brown color with bright shoulders, and white at the tip of its tail.
Juveniles can have various white markings on their underbellies. These hawks can be recognized from their angry sounding, grating call when they feel threatened.
These calls are known to last for up to three seconds. Harris’s Hawks nest in tall trees and build their nests from sticks, while they are even known to build their nests in manmade structures.
Interestingly, Harris’s Hawks are year-round residents and do not migrate, so your chances of seeing them increase in likelihood.
They make their homes among canyons and scrub land. They also heavily populate the US-Mexico border area.
12. Gray Hawk
Small mammals, birds & rodents
Gray Hawks are a smaller breed of hawk with adults being a pale gray color with white bars on their underbellies.
Their tail is a banded black and white pattern.
Juvenile Gray Hawks are brown and streaky and have a distinctive face pattern and pale underwing.
Gray Hawks can be recognized from their two vocalizations: an exaggerated three-note whistle call in breeding season, and a one-note alarm call given all year long.
They are seen building their nests in forest edges on the outer branches of tall trees. Gray Hawks breed in mid-April through July while migration takes place in February and April, and September and October.
The best opportunities to spot a Gray Hawk would be in the open country and forest edges where they usually build their nests.
13. Common Black Hawk
13 Life Expectancy
Snakes, frogs and Fish
Common Black Hawks are medium sized hawks with long wings and short tails.
These hawks are named for their entirely black appearance, with only a distinctive white band on their tails.
Some feathers, however, are more pale. Juvenile hawks are streaky brown with some pale feathers.
These hawks have very general vocalizations, while adult males have slow calls, females have a rapidfire call.
They often build their nests high above ground in trees or mangroves. Common Black Hawks are known to reuse their nest and materials in order to grow it over the years.
Though this species is rare, you are most likely to spot these hawks in woodlands near water or in cottonwood trees.
We are avid bird-watchers who recently retired, allowing us more time to travel the world. Fortunately, we have managed to visit numerous countries around Europe, Asia, and America. Watching and photographing birds has been a passion for many years and we are making the most of the extra time on our hands!