Last Updated on January 15, 2023 by Lily Aldrin
California is home to some of the most majestic and powerful birds of prey in the world.
From the fierce Golden Eagle to the elusive Ferruginous Hawk, the Golden State boasts a diverse array of raptors that will leave you in awe.
But do you know which birds of prey call California home?
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at 30 of the most fascinating birds of prey found in California and discover their unique characteristics, behaviors, and habitats.
So, whether you’re a bird-watching enthusiast or just fascinated by these powerful predators, read on and discover the incredible world of California’s birds of prey.
|Great Horned Owl|
|Pygmy Northern Owl|
|Great Gray Owl|
Table of Contents
- Birds of Prey in California
- 1. Northern Goshawk
- 2. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
- 3. Red-tailed Hawk
- 4. Cooper’s Hawk
- 5. Harris’s Hawk
- 6. Zone-tailed Hawk
- 7. Swainson’s Hawk
- 8. Ferruginous Hawk
- 9. Rough-Legged Hawk
- 10. Red-shouldered Hawk
- 11. Northern Harrier
- 12. White-tailed Kite
- 13. Golden Eagle
- 14. Bald Eagle
- 15. Osprey
- 16. Prairie Falcon
- 17. American Kestrel
- 18. Peregrine Falcon
- 19. Turkey Vulture
- 20. California Condors
- 21. Great Horned Owl
- 22. Long-eared Owl
- 23. Barn Owl
- 24. Burrowing Owl
- 25. Short-eared Owl
- 26. Pygmy Northern Owl
- 27. Western Screech-Owl
- 28. Great Gray Owl
- 29. Barred Owl
- 30. Spotted Owl
Birds of Prey in California
1. Northern Goshawk
The Northern Goshawk seems to be the biggest accipiter hawk that can be found in the state of Arizona.
It is also much bigger than both Cooper’s Hawks and the Sharp-shinned Hawk.
It also has a significantly longer wingspan and a more curved tail, which contributes to the fact that it appears somewhat like to buteo hawk.
However, in contrast to buteo hawks, this species spends a far smaller proportion of its time flying and a great deal less time sitting in conspicuous positions.
Alternatively, the Northern Goshawk feeds by soaring at a low height across wide grassland or along woodland borders in order to startle its prey while it is outside in the open.
When this hawk can forage from a nesting site, it is often well disguised, making it difficult to notice when it is doing so.
There are breeding populations of Northern Goshawks and year-round inhabitants in the eastern portion of the state of Arizona.
Northern Goshawks may also be found in the western half of the state during the mating season.
2. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
From the biggest to the tiniest raptor on the list, the sharp-shinned hawk is the one who is most often observed pursuing songbirds.
Because of this, they are a familiar sight in the gardens of homes around the state.
These hawks are easily identified by their tiny size, speed, and unusual behavior.
Their wings and backs are a bluish-gray color, and their breast has orange plumage markings.
The northern part of the state of California is home to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk’s nesting grounds; however, these birds have been seen in every other part of the state.
The Great Canyon State is home to a variety of birds that spend the wintertime, the majority of which are Canadian species called Sharp-Shinned Hawks.
3. Red-tailed Hawk
Among the biggest hawks found in California are the Red-tailed hawks, which may reach a maximum wing span of 53 inches (4.4 feet).
It may be easily identified by its red tail, despite the fact that its coloring can range from nearly totally white to a dark brown tint.
This huge hawk may often be seen in wide grassland as well as in urban areas.
It is usually observed waiting for prey while perched on fences or poles along the side of the road.
The Red-tailed Hawk is among the most frequent kinds of hawks throughout California, and it is possible to see one almost everywhere in the Golden State at any time of the year.
These prey birds consume rats and other tiny rodents, which it captures when they go out into the open by pouncing from their own position and attacking them.
4. Cooper’s Hawk
This tiny hawk from California is quite nimble and possesses a lot of knowledge when it refers to capturing little birds when they are flying.
It is not uncommon for it to consume species that are much bigger than itself.
Male Cooper’s Hawks exhibit bands of a color that is between reddish-orange and red-brown on their undersides, while their upper parts are a greyish-blue color.
Vermillion coloration may be seen in the penetrating eyes.
If you are able to study a Cooper’s Hawk when it is sitting on a limb, you will have the best opportunity to detect the orange coloring that may be found on its breast and bottom.
Because of its long tail and tiny, curved wings, the Cooper’s Hawk is able to execute fast twists and swift rotations even while flying through the dense vegetation of dense woods and bushes.
This allows the prey birds to better hunt their prey.
In the past, Cooper’s Hawks were reserved raptors that lived in woodlands, but now they are often seen in metropolitan areas like Tucson and Phoenix, where they catch pigeons and other songbirds.
It is very uncommon for a Cooper’s Hawk to be seen in the vicinity of bird feeders.
When it does so, the hawk will attempt to startle and ambush songbirds that are eating by making a lightning-fast rush from a concealed perch.
Throughout the northern areas of North America, it is only found throughout the summer, whereas in California, it is present throughout the whole year.
5. Harris’s Hawk
This is a huge buteo hawk that has long legs and a tail that is also quite lengthy.
It is a large prey bird that is mostly dark brown in color and has brown spots both on its shoulders and on its thighs.
The white termination line at the base of Harris’s Hawk’s tail is yet another wonderful characteristic that helps to differentiate this species from others.
This bar is plainly apparent while the bird is soaring on thermal flow.
Although South America and Mexico are the most usual places to find these hawks, they may also be spotted breeding across southern Arizona and the extreme southeast corner of California.
The Harris’s Hawk, in contrast to the majority of hawk species, is very sociable and frequently hunts in three or groups of more individuals.
It has been discovered by researchers that hawks who hunt together have a higher success rate compared to those who hunt alone.
6. Zone-tailed Hawk
The Zone-tailed Hawk is native to Mexico, but it frequently wanders north of the border to become a frequent vagrant across southern California.
Although it breeds in Mexico, the Zone-tailed Hawk may be seen there.
The flying feathers and tail plumage of these hawks have some lighter banded regions, but otherwise, they are almost black.
It’s interesting to note that Turkey Vultures are similar to them not only in their general look but also in the way they act.
Ornithologists think that this resemblance is not a coincidence and that Zone-tailed Hawks exploit it to their advantage since the majority of the species that Zone-tailed Hawks hunt believe that Turkey Vultures are not dangerous.
They hunt small animals, birds, and reptiles, and their preferred habitats are desert canyons, cliffs, and foothills.
7. Swainson’s Hawk
The Swainson’s Hawk is a little buteo that may be seen in the open, arid parts of eastern California during the summertime.
The brown breast of these hawks stands in stark contrast to their white underwings and chins, making the long, thin wings of these birds the best way to identify them.
The Swainson’s Hawk is a species of bird of prey that travels south to spend the winter season in Argentina.
In the autumn, they congregate in flocks that might number in the hundreds of thousands and go south together.
During this migration, they often join forces with other species, like Broad-winged Hawks.
From April through September, residents of the Golden State may get a glimpse of one of these common hawks of California.
8. Ferruginous Hawk
The Ferruginous Hawk is an exceptionally big buteo hawk that lives on the plains and deserts of the western United States.
The biggest hawk in California, its wing span may reach up to 57 inches, making it the state’s top predator.
The breeding population of this hawk throughout northern California is small, but it is widespread across the rest of California state when it is not in the breeding season.
Even though it may be found in two different color variants (dark and light), the light variant is the one that is most often seen.
The light variant may be distinguished from the dark variant by its bluish-gray head, brilliant white underside, and reddish-brown upper parts.
Prairie dogs make up a significant portion of these hawks’ diets, which also include different types of rodents and other tiny animals.
9. Rough-Legged Hawk
The Rough-legged Hawk is a bird that is native to the arctic tundra of Alaska and northern Canada, where it breeds.
However, during the winter months, this species may be spotted spending time in many regions of the United States.
It is possible to see one in the state of California between the months of October and March, and it prefers open environments such as wetlands, farms, and meadows.
It is more likely to scavenge from a perch, like a telephone pole or fence post, although on occasion, it may hover in the air as a kestrel would.
This is its favorite method of food acquisition.
This is a huge buteo hawk, and the easiest way to recognize it is by its brownish underbelly, which stands in stark contrast to the white undersides of its tail and wings.
10. Red-shouldered Hawk
There are two separate populations of the Red-shouldered Hawk: one is in the eastern United States, while the other lives in Mexico and western California.
Because of the distance of more than 1,000 miles that separates the two groups, they hardly ever interact with one another.
The Red-shouldered Hawk inhabits the lowland woods that run along the coast of California in the state of California.
It thrives in old-growth forests that are dotted with bodies of water.
In contrast to the non-migratory nature of the Red-shouldered Hawk population in California, its eastern counterpart engages in some seasonal movement.
In point of fact, adult hawks will remain in the territory where they nested during the whole year.
11. Northern Harrier
The Northern Harrier is a bird that is native to the more northern regions of North America, where it breeds, but it migrates southward during the winter to spend its time in the southern United States and Central America.
During the winter months of October to April, this harrier may be found in California, where it likes to hang out on wide grassland and wetlands.
The behavior of harriers is the most reliable indicator of their species.
Their method of hunting involves flying slowly at the height of a few feet over the land in order to strike any rodent that has been captured outside of its burrow.
12. White-tailed Kite
There are two common names for this species of kite: the White-tailed Kite and the Black-shouldered Kite. Both of these names are accurate descriptions of this bird.
The underside of an adult White-tailed Kite is completely white, as are the head and the tail.
The top of their bodies is a light grey color, while the shoulders have patches of a darker grey color.
Their eyes have a dark crimson color.
In contrast, juveniles possess a color that is more brownish and is marked with lighter streaks.
From a perch or when flying across open grassland, white-tailed kites search for reptiles, tiny rodents, and insects to eat.
White-tailed kites may also eat reptile eggs.
In a manner that is similar to that of kestrels, these white birds prefer to hover in the air over a particular location in order to watch for a rodent to emerge from its tunnel.
White-tailed Kites are uncommon inhabitants that breed near the coast of California, and they are able to be observed there throughout the whole year.
13. Golden Eagle
The magnificent Golden Eagle is native to the western regions of the United States and is considered to be among the most powerful eagle species found across North America.
The Golden Eagle is a resident species that regularly breed in mountainous regions of California, and it is possible to see this bird at any time of the year in these regions.
Golden Eagles, in contrast to Bald Eagles, do not have any white coloring on the top of their heads.
This is the key difference between the two species.
The Golden Eagle is a type of raptor that is present in both the Old World and the New World.
It is among the numerous kinds of raptors that can be spotted across the world.
14. Bald Eagle
The American Bald Eagle is an extremely massive raptor with a wingspan that can reach up to 9 feet.
If you see this eagle flying over the Great Canyon State, you won’t be able to miss it because of its size.
In addition to its massive size, the American Bald Eagle is among the most clearly identifiable birds in the state of California.
This is mostly due to the stark contrast between its white tail and head and its consistently dark brown body.
Young Bald Eagles have dark brown feathers all over their bodies, bright stripes that are irregularly distributed over the body, and a buffy white underbelly.
This enormous bird of prey has its nesting grounds in the northern section of the state of California, although it may also be spotted in other regions of the state at other times of the year.
The wings of a Bald Eagle are almost always retained in a horizontal position when the bird is flying on thermal currents.
Despite the fact that carrion makes up a significant portion of their diet, they also consume small mammals, fish, and birds.
The Osprey isn’t an eagle in the strictest sense of the word, yet, it may have a wingspan of approximately 5.6 feet and is almost the same size as an eagle.
Because of its white belly and breast, which stand in stark contrast to its blackish-gray upper parts and the black wrist spots on its lower wings, the Osprey can often be recognized with relative ease.
This big bird native to California is the only species of bird of prey that dives headfirst into the water in pursuit of fish, often going so far as to completely immerse itself as it tries to seize food with its feet.
Ospreys are usually never seen far from a body of water because of the method that they hunt, with the exception of when they are migrating, when they will go through regions where there is no water.
Although it is an uncommon breeder in the northern part of the state of California, the Osprey may also be seen in the southwest part of the state during the winter.
16. Prairie Falcon
When hunting, prairie falcons, which are native to the vast plains of California, often hunt at low altitudes in order to sneak up on their possible prey on the land.
They fly at a low height over broad prairie and grassland so that they may pounce on birds and animals of a smaller size that they startle while they are on the ground.
In spite of their size and the fact that they are relatively numerous in California, Prairie Falcons are notoriously difficult to see in the wild due to their brown coloration, which is ironically something that works to their advantage in the long run.
17. American Kestrel
The American Kestrel isn’t only the tiniest falcon in North America, but it is also among the most frequent birds of prey.
Its name comes from the word “kestrel,” which is derived from the word “kestrel“
The male American Kestrel has a particularly bright appearance, with rufous orange upper parts and a tail, as well as blue-gray wings that end in black points.
In addition, the male has a black mustache and a dark bar behind each eye.
The cap that sits atop the man’s head is a fiery orange color.
The female American Kestrel has a paler overall appearance than the male, but her upper parts have a rufous orange tint.
When it is looking for food, it prefers to hunt from a perch, like a telephone pole or a limb of a tree, or it may fly from field to field and meadow to meadow.
The American Kestrel will swoop down and attempt to seize a mouse or other small mammal with its talons after it has located the prey.
Insects and worms make up most of the prey that is taken during the summer and spring months, while rodents and small birds make up the majority of the prey that is taken during the winter months.
Nesting sites include abandoned woodpecker holes as well as cracks and crevices in man-made structures. Also uses nesting boxes that have been placed there by humans.
In the more northern portions of its territory, the American Kestrel is a raptor that migrates, whereas, in the more southern portions of its range, it is a resident all year round.
It is a resident of the state of California for the whole year.
18. Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is the animal that holds the record for the fastest speed.
This falcon has the incredible ability to drop from the sky at rates of up to more than 200 miles per hour.
Due to these accomplishments, it is perhaps the most successful California raptor on this list.
Peregrine Falcons, on the other hand, usually never eat anything but birds, in contrast to Prairie Falcons.
Because of their food predilection, they were especially vulnerable to the eggshell-thinning effects of the chemical DDT, which led to a catastrophic decrease in the peregrine population in the 1960s and 1970s.
But since the use of the pesticide DDT was declared illegal, the population of the peregrine falcon has rebounded from its earlier drop, and these magnificent birds are once again a regular sight throughout the state of California.
19. Turkey Vulture
The Turkey Vulture, with a wing span of approximately six feet, is the biggest of the vulture species that makes its home in California.
When in flight, you can notice that this large black raptor has a bright red head and dark grey trailing edges to its wings.
When in flight, a Turkey Vulture is readily recognized by the V shape of its wings and the brightness of its wingtips.
During the summer months, this large raptor migrates to California to mate.
It is most common in open areas with scattered patches of forest.
This bird, like other vultures, has adapted to a diet of carrion and may frequently be seen congregating in large groups around dead animals on the road.
Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures may appear identical at first glance, but Black Vultures are far less common in the Golden State.
20. California Condors
The California Condor is a huge bird that can reach a wingspan of approximately 2.8 meters (9.1 feet), and it has a body that is a dark brownish color with white underparts.
Additionally, it has a long tail that may be cocked while it is at rest.
This enormous raptor may weigh as much as 10 kilograms when fully grown (9 kilograms).
The head of an adult male is yellowish with a red crown on its head, whereas the head of an adult female is a much darker brown than yellow.
Orange or reddish-orange coloration may be seen on its legs and talons.
The California Condor was previously common over much of North America; however, it is now confined to a few remote pockets in the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as the Mexican state of Baja California.
The IUCN has placed them on its list of endangered species.
They are most at home in arid, open landscapes with a smattering of trees and plants, such as scrub, grasslands, semi-deserts, and deserts.
They are particularly prevalent in the Transverse Ranges to the east of San Diego County in the state of California.
Along the Pacific Coast of Northern Baja in Mexico is where you will find the greatest concentration of California Condors.
They consume mostly carrion, particularly dead animals that have been killed by other types of predators.
In captivity, they will also consume meat obtained from the corpses of cattle.
21. Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl, with a wingspan of approximately four feet, is the biggest owl species found throughout Michigan.
It has enormous golden eyes and two ear tufts (sometimes called horns) and is a dark brown tint.
This owl begins producing eggs in January or February across California, which is an unusually early time of year for owls to nest there.
Nearly always active at night, it relies on its acute hearing sense to locate prey in the dark.
Instead of building its own nest, the Great Horned Owl uses those of other big birds like owls and herons.
It inhabits a broad range of habitats within Michigan, from forests to cities, and is present throughout the year in California.
The duck-sized birds and the rabbit- and fox-sized offspring are no match for this owl’s hunting prowess.
22. Long-eared Owl
These smaller, more secretive owls are better at hiding in their surroundings than the previously described species.
The little rodents and animals that make the adjacent meadows their home are easy prey since they frequent the same thick forested regions as these predators.
Long-eared Owls, like other owls, are able to fly thanks to the fringes on their flying feathers quietly.
This, in addition to their acute hearing, helps them surprise their target in the night and capture it.
Despite their stealthy nature, these ubiquitous California owls are easily recognized by their lengthy, low hoots.
These owls may be recognized by the large tufts of plumage on their ears and by the presence of their droppings in the grassy regions just underneath conifer trees.
23. Barn Owl
Barn Owls, in contrast to the Great Horned Owl, have white plumage and a “friendlier” aspect, making them seem less threatening.
Barn Owls are very elusive since they are nocturnal raptors with excellent night vision.
A quick listen to one of their shrieking sounds, though, and you’ll know exactly what kind of animal you’re dealing with.
If you happen to see one flying above with a full moon, you may even be able to make out its white underbelly.
You may see these owls year-round in California, and they like hunting in grassy fields and open woodland.
24. Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owls are quite rare in California’s wide spaces.
It not only builds its own burrows, but it also frequently moves into those dug by prairie dogs and ground squirrels.
This owl is constantly on the move, hunting small mammals and insects in the open throughout the day and night.
Those owls are difficult to see on the wide-open grasslands because of their little stature.
They like to sit on top of a mound, from whence they may look around for potential prey.
25. Short-eared Owl
Although the Short-eared Owl does not breed within California, it is a common sight in the state during nonbreeding months.
Unlike other owls, Short-eared Owls frequently hunt during the day.
This, coupled with the fact that they hunt by swooping low over wide regions, makes them easy to see in the wild.
These owls are common in California’s open areas, such as fields, airports, and abandoned plots.
26. Pygmy Northern Owl
Throughout California, the Northern Pygmy Owl is indeed the tiniest owl species.
But although it may be small, it is a fierce predator that often takes songbirds as big as itself.
This owl loves to hunt throughout the day. It waits patiently for a songbird to come near before darting away.
When songbirds detect a Pygmy Owl, they will take revenge on and mob the owl until it wants to give up and goes flying.
Since Northern Pygmy Owls are normally hard to notice, the best method to discover them is by paying close attention to constantly attacking songbirds and utilizing them as your guidance.
27. Western Screech-Owl
The Western Screech-Owl is a species of owl that is often seen in parks, vast gardens, and even golf courses, despite its origins in open forests.
They nest in tree hollows and may be recognized by their rapid succession of hoots.
These owls are prevalent in all parts of California and may be observed there year-round.
From worms and insects to rodents, they eat just about everything tiny enough to fit in their mouths.
In order to entice Western Screech-Owls to your garden, you may put up nest boxes.
28. Great Gray Owl
The Great Gray Owl is generally a northern species, with the majority of its range found within Alaska and Canada.
The Pacific Northwest and northeastern California are home to a tiny population of these owls, nevertheless.
They prefer the boreal forest mostly in the northern portion of their range, although in California, you may find them in the mountains.
Great Gray Owls, like numerous other northern raptors, have been known to winter well south of their breeding area.
It is during these irruptive years that the owls are compelled to go south since food is scarce in their normal nesting region.
29. Barred Owl
The Barred Owl was formerly a bird of eastern North America but has rapidly extended its range westwards during the last century.
This owl currently has breeding populations throughout the Pacific Northwest, in addition to the northern part of California.
Hearing the Barred Owl’s distinctive hooting sound is the best way to locate this bird, as is the case with other owls.
Mature woods and woodlands on the edge of wetlands are ideal environments for them.
Nest boxes placed in mature trees are easily accepted by these birds.
30. Spotted Owl
Since these owls’ preferred habitat, old-growth forest, has been diminishing throughout its range across North America, the species has become more scarce.
One of three Spotted Owl subspecies found in North America is the California Spotted Owl, which can only be found in the Golden State.
The range of this owl is quite fragmented over the Golden State, making it a challenge to see.
As with other types of owls, these birds may be recognized by their distinctive hooting cries.
To a lesser extent than other owls, it specializes in eating flying squirrels and woodrats.
This concludes our look at some of the most spectacular raptor species you could see in California. We hope you liked our overview of the most frequent raptors in California.
You can see that the raptor community in the state is vibrant and multicolored, and you shouldn’t miss out on seeing them for yourself.
What are some common types of birds of prey found in California?
Some common types of birds of prey found in California include the red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, American kestrel, and peregrine falcon.
How can I identify a bird of prey in California?
One way to identify a bird of prey in California is to look for characteristics such as sharp talons, hooked beaks, and strong, broad wings. Additionally, many birds of prey have keen eyesight and are often found perching in high places or soaring above the landscape.
What do birds of prey in California eat?
Birds of prey in California have a diverse diet that includes small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Some, such as the golden eagle, may also prey on larger animals such as deer or coyotes.
Are there any endangered or threatened birds of prey in California?
Yes, some examples of endangered or threatened birds of prey in California include the California condor and the peregrine falcon. Conservation efforts have been successful in increasing their population.
How can I help protect birds of prey in California?
There are several ways to help protect birds of prey in California, including protecting their habitats, avoiding the use of pesticides, and supporting conservation efforts. Additionally, people can also report sightings of rare or threatened birds to organizations such as the Audubon Society or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.