All 14 Birds of Prey in California! (Species ID Guide) (2024)


California is well-known for its sunny beaches and recreational activities. For bird watchers, the state has many opportunities to find birds of prey in California.

The Golden State is a bird-watcher’s paradise; it has more than 660 exotic bird species, an extraordinary number in the United States!

The large avian population shouldn’t be surprising, considering California is a large state with different landscapes and climates. Moreover, California has a statewide marine conservation area network that attracts many feathered friends.

If you’re eager to know about the large variety of birds of prey in California, such as hawks, falcons, eagles, vultures, and owls, this article is just what you need.

Before you scroll further down this guide, check out these other animal-related articles: Top Reptile Rescues in California and Best Wildlife Rescues in California.

1. Red-Tailed Hawk


Red-Tailed Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Size: 18-26 inches
  • Weight: 5-3.5 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 43-55 inches
  • Life span: 10-12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The red-tailed hawk is among the larger and most prevalent birds of prey in California.

It is impossible to distinguish hawks via coloration since they can be completely black, dark brown, white, or different variations of these colors.

However, as the name suggests, the best indicator of a red-tailed hawk is its rusty red tail.

Red-tailed hawks are extremely adaptable and have no preferred habitat. They are commonly seen in open grasslands or perched on roadside posts and fences in the city.

These hawks generally feed on small animals and rodents, such as mice, and catch them by swooping down from their perch and grasping them mid-air.

2. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp-Shinned Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus
  • Size: 9-13.5 inches
  • Weight: 18-0.49 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 5-26.5 inches
  • Life span: 5 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Compared to the red-tailed hawk, the sharp-shinned hawks are among the smallest birds of prey in the Canyon State.

Amazingly athletic and agile, these birds have distinct orange bars on their upper chest, beautiful blue-grey back and wings, and a relatively long tail.

When in flight, the wings appear short and round. Female sharp-shinned hawks are considerably larger than males.

Sharp-shinned hawks generally reside in forested areas; however, they are commonly found stalking songbirds in backyards.

These raptors meticulously ambush their prey, hidden and perched patiently at a height and swooshing down at high speeds in pursuit of their target.

3. Cooper’s Hawk


Cooper’s Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
  • Size: 5-20 inches
  • Weight: 49-1.50 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 5-35.5 inches
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Named after the most famous American ornithologist William Cooper, the Cooper’s hawk is quite similar in appearance and behavior to the sharp-shinned hawk.

They both have orange bars on their upper chest and blue-grey back and wings.

However, the Copper’s hawk is slightly smaller than the sharp-shinned hawk and has red-colored eyes compared to the dark eyes of its counterpart.

Cooper’s hawks also prey on small birds such as doves and songbirds. These birds are extremely agile due to their small, round wings and long tail.

They easily make sharp turns and swiftly maneuver through thick forests and shrubs while chasing their prey in flight. Occasionally, they also hunt species larger than themselves.

4. Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo regalis
  • Size: 20-27 inches
  • Weight: 0-5.0 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 47-60 inches
  • Life span: 20 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Among the largest birds of prey in California and the United States, the ferruginous hawk has long, wide wings and a broad white, gray, or rust-colored tail.

These hawks come in two color varieties: the light morph features a rusty brown back with pale underparts, and the dark morph features a dark brown and chestnut back, belly, and chest.

The dark morph variety is much rarer than the light morph.

Ferruginous hawks are generally found in open deserts and prairies. They mostly feed on small mammals, among which prairie dogs form a major part of their diet.

Moreover, these large predators also consume birds, amphibians, and reptiles using various meticulous hunting strategies such as hopping or running on the ground while chasing their prey.

5. Swainson’s Hawk


Swainson’s Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo swainsoni
  • Size: 18-22 inches
  • Weight: 5-3.0 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 46-54 inches
  • Life span: 7-8 years
  • Conservation Status: Species of Concern and considered threatened by the state of California

The Swainson’s hawk is the most well-known raptor in California and is protected by the government.

Compared to its medium size, the Swainson’s hawk has a lengthy wingspan with narrow wings.

Its brown chest best recognizes this bird of prey against its white chin and underwings.

The Swainson’s hawk flaunts one of the longest migratory ranges worldwide.

These birds arrive in California during April and spend the summer breeding and raising young ones.

Towards the end of August, they travel in large flocks to South America, especially Uruguay and Argentina.

These raptors can be found perched on trees in open areas and also spotted perched on fences and telephone posts.

They feed mainly on large insects, especially grasshoppers, which has earned them the nickname “grasshopper hawk”.

6. Osprey

Osprey Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
  • Size: 20-25.5 inches
  • Weight: 0-4.4 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 59-71 inches
  • Life span: 8-10 years
  • Conservation Status: Protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Ospreys aren’t hawks or eagles; they’ve been assigned their own Family and Genus, which makes them a unique bird of prey!

However, they do have certain similarities with hawks.

These raptors are easily identifiable by their white chest and belly, blackish-gray upper body, and black wrist patches on their lower wings.

Often called sea hawks, river hawks, or fish hawks, ospreys are always found living and breeding around water.

This is because of their specialized diet, which consists mainly of fish; even their curved talons that intersect when closed are adapted to catch their slippery prey.

However, they are not strictly pescetarian and also hunt lizards and mammals if fish isn’t available.

7. Red-Shouldered Hawk


Red-Shouldered Hawk Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus
  • Size: 15-19 inches
  • Weight: 1-1.9 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 38-42 inches
  • Life span: 10-15 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Red-shouldered hawks flaunt stripy rufous chests, generally white underwings, a distinctly lined tail, and most importantly, red shoulders.

These raptors are mainly forest dwellers; their favorite spots are wooded areas with open canopies that provide extra space for efficient hunting.

Red-shouldered hawks are also found in suburban woodlands.

The feed of red-shouldered hawks consists mainly of various small birds and mammals, including waterfowl.

However, they also indulge in other species like reptiles and amphibians.

Their unique hunting strategy involves directly dropping onto unsuspecting prey from above.

8. Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 19-35 inches
  • Weight: 2-3.8 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 0–14.3 inches
  • Life span: 20-30 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Next on our list is the great horned owl. The great horned owl has big yellow eyes and lengthy tufts of feathers that resemble horns (hence its name).

Their orange faces feature contrasting black and white lines, while their underbelly has horizontal bars with tree-colored streaks resembling tree branches from below.

This unique coloring helps them camouflage.

Great horned owls inhabit both woodlands and urban areas. A truly fierce hunter, these owls are nocturnal and hunt in darkness using their heightened sense of hearing.

This species can catch large birds and mammals, including rabbits, skunks, squirrels, and even young foxes.

9. Barred Owl


Barred Owl Characteristics: 

  • Scientific Name: Strix varia
  • Size: 16-25 inches
  • Weight: 39-1.76 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 38-49 inches
  • Life span: 8-10 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Also known as the hoot owl because of its characteristic hooting call, the barred owl gets its name from the horizontal ‘bars’ or alternating light and dark brown stripes on its wings, back, and tail.

It has large, sunken black eyes and is an extremely curious creature.

Originally prevalent in Eastern North America, this owl species is now common in the northern regions of California.

Barred owls inhabit mature forests, especially those bordering swamps.

These nocturnal species prey on small rodents such as mice; however, they’re comfortable eating almost anything meaty.

This includes insects, rabbits, squirrels, bats, minks, moles, weasels, opossums, birds, snakes, frogs, fish, and turtles.

10. American Barn Owl

American Barn Owl Characteristics: 

  • Scientific Name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 12-16 inches
  • Weight: 0-1.5 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 40-50 inches
  • Life span: 2-4 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The American barn owl is known by many names – the monkey-faced owl, the ghost owl, and the church owl.

It has unique features and can be easily recognized due to its sandy, flat, heart-shaped face featuring a dark brown edge.

As their name suggests, American barn owls mostly live in barns; however, they also prefer old wooden buildings.

They have an amazing sense of hearing and can efficiently find small animals hiding under dense grass or snow.

Farmers, in particular, love these owls since they help keep their property rodent-free, protecting their animals from the diseases caused by rats and mice.

11. Spotted Owl


Spotted Owl Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Strix occidentalis
  • Size: about 18 inches
  • Weight: up to 26 lbs.
  • Wingspan: up to 48 inches
  • Life span: 10 years
  • Conservation Status: Near Threatened

The spotted owl usually has brown eyes and a dark brown body featuring few white markings. Hence the name ‘spotted.’

Its facial disk is also brown with white and pale brown feathers forming a noticeable ‘X’ on its face.

This nocturnal species is rarely seen in residential areas and inhabit densely wooded forests.

Like most owl species, the spotted owl also feeds on small mammals such as mice, rats, and other rodents, particularly liking woodrats and flying squirrels.

Unfortunately, this species has become increasingly rare across North America due to deforestation and urban residential areas replacing mature forests.

12. Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name:
  • Size: 7–25.2 inches
  • Weight: 2–4.0 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 48–60 inches
  • Life span: 10 years
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Possibly the most beautiful owl species, the snowy owl, is a stunning and rare sight to behold in California.

Its dominating white plumage is dotted with dark horizontal lines all over the body, excluding the breast and face. In fact, these owls tend to get whiter as they age!

During summers, the snowy owls migrate to the Arctic Tundra, where they breed and mate. When winter comes, these birds travel south.

They can be seen perched on short posts or fences, patiently waiting to swoop on their prey.

Although their favorite food is lemmings, they also hunt other small rodents as well as birds, rabbits, and fish.

13. Western Screech Owl


Western-Screech Owl Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Megascops kennicottii
  • Size: 5–10 inches
  • Weight: 22-0.67 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 22–24 inches
  • Life span: 1-8 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

The western screech owl is a fairly common bird of prey in California, featuring a speckled back with huge yellow eyes and pointed ears.

Instead of its appearance, this species is generally identified by its characteristic sequence of accelerating hoots.

Although they mainly inhabit forests, shrublands, deserts, and farm fields, these owls have adapted fairly well to residential areas and are commonly seen in parks, golf courses, and gardens.

The main prey of western screech owls includes mice, rats, and birds.

However, these nocturnal hunters are opportunistic and feed on amphibians, fish, and invertebrates, including crayfish, slugs, insects, and earthworms.

Moreover, they also occasionally hunt large animals such as rabbits and ducks.

14. Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier Characteristics:

  • Scientific Name: Circus hudsonius
  • Size: 5 inches
  • Weight: 86 lbs.
  • Wingspan: 40-50 inches
  • Life span: 16 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Northern harriers are majestic-looking birds of prey in California and are abundant all year round.

They feature rimmed eyes and a mixture of dark and light brown plumage featuring strokes of white. They have a distinct yellow spot just above their beak.

The females are noticeably heavier as compared to the males.

Northern harriers are mostly found in grasslands and open marshes.

They feed on various small mammals and birds.

Their foraging strategy is flying slowly and quietly a few feet above the ground and readily pouncing on their prey when it happens to step outside its burrow.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the gray bird of prey in California?

This is the ferruginous hawk.

What is the butcher bird in California?

The butcher bird is also known as the shrike.

What bird has a bright yellow chest in California?

The yellow-breasted chat is the bright yellow bird in California.

All Birds of Prey in California


California’s varied temperatures and landscape are home to over 600 birds of prey.

These raptors and scavengers play a paramount role in balancing and maintaining small wildlife and rodent populations and getting rid of animal carcasses.

We hope you enjoyed going through this guide about some of California’s most common birds of prey.

Next time you’re visiting the state, make sure to spot some of these amazing majestic raptors.

If you find this guide, “All Birds of Prey in California,” informative and helpful, you can check out these other bird-related articles from our team:

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