California birds of prey

California Birds of Prey: 19 Most Common Species with Pictures

California is known for offering tons of activities through its sunny beaches, but if you’re into bird watching, the state has one of the most unique hotspots for unique and impressive birds.

In fact, the state has a staggering record of 676 different bird species flying over the state or calling it home, based on the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) checklist.

However, if you’re interested in the California birds of prey catalog, you’re in for a treat, because in today’s article, we’ll walk you through 19 of the most impressive species that you can find there. Let’s jump right in!

1. California Condor

two california condors

Kicking off the list with one of the most iconic birds in the state of California. The California condor, also known as “Gymnogyps californianus”, has one of the longest lifespans of all raptors, as it can live to up to 50 years of age. Not only that, but they’re also the largest raptor in North America!

Author Note: Both males and females of this species are quite similar in terms of characteristics and features, which are identified by the black feathers all over its body except for its bald head.

Unfortunately, the bird is currently an endangered and protected species by the state, so almost all remaining birds breed in captivity before they’re released into the wild.

2. Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Another common California bird of prey is the Peregrine falcon. The Peregrine falcon, also known scientifically as “Falco peregrinus”, is one of the most impressive birds that you can find in California.

This falcon is, by far, the fastest bird in the world, achieving a maximum speed of about 180 to 200 mph when they’re nosediving.

This impressive feat is achieved thanks to the bird’s excellent aerodynamics, despite being a relatively larger falcon than other species in North America, such as the Prairie Falcon.

Due to its size, it’s not uncommon for this bird to feast on smaller mammals as well as birds like waterfowl, doves, songbirds, etc.

3. Swainson’s Hawk

swainsons hawk in a tree

The Swainson’s Hawk is one of the most popular raptors in California and is also protected by the government. The bird’s scientific name is “Buteo swainsoni” and it’s known for its long wingspan when compared to its size.

The bird also has one of the largest migratory ranges in the world, as it can travel in huge flocks all the way to South America, especially in Argentina and Uruguay.

The medium sized raptor likes to perch on fence posts during the breeding season where it can prey on large insects, especially grasshoppers. In fact, some people call them “grasshopper hawks”.

4. Great Gray Owl

Great grey owl

The Great Gray owl (Strix nebulosa) is another unique species of owls that you may find in California. This one is also protected by the government because it’s considered an endangered species.

The bird is quite large and its thick coat of feathers gives it an even buffier appearance. The bird is quite tall and broad with a very long tail.

You can easily tell the bird by its huge facial disk as well as the bowtie-shaped markings across the bird’s neck and fierce golden yellow eyes

5. Turkey Vulture

turkey vulture landing

The turkey vulture, also known as “Cathartes aura”, is native to the North American continent and is found all across the United States.

Author Note: The bird is known for its bald appearance with a reddish head and a pink bill along with black plumage covering the rest of its body that looks similar to that of Wild Turkey, hence the name.

The bird mainly feeds on the decaying flesh of dead animals and birds. That’s why it flies low to the ground in order to pick up the smell.

6. American Bald Eagle

Adult Bald Eagle

The most popular eagle in California is, of course, the American Bald Eagle. This one is scientifically known as “Haliaeetus leucocephalus” and has been adopted as the national bird of the United States in 1782.

The bird is also found in Northern Mexico, Alaska, and Canada. The white colored feathers on the bird’s head are the main reason behind the bird’s name.

The bald eagle typically feeds on fish, which is why you can usually spot their nests in wooded areas next to bodies of water.

7. Golden Eagle

golden eagle landing

Besides the bald eagle, the golden eagle is the only other species of eagle that you can find in the State of California, and similar to the American Bald Eagle, this one is also protected by the government.

The bird’s scientific name is “Aquila chrysaetos” and it’s considered a decently common raptor across the United States. This one is widespread across North America and is known for the golden brown feathers that cover its head.

You can identify Golden Eagles by their golden brown plumage around the head as well as the brown color that covers the rest of their body.

The glorious raptor has some sharp talons with powerful legs that enable them to hunt down its prey.

But unlike the bald eagle, this one mainly feasts on small mammals, such as ground squirrels and rabbits. They’re also larger in size and have a wider wingspan of about 5.11 to 7.8 feet.

8. Osprey

Juvenile Osprey Eating Fish in Tree

At first glance, you might classify an osprey as a hawk or an eagle. However, these birds of prey are of a family of their own and they’re its only member, which is known as Pandionidae. The “Pandion haliaetus” are also commonly called “sea hawks”, “river hawks”, and “fish hawks”.

This is because, similar to the American bald eagle, this one is also a fish-eating raptor. However, it’s not strictly pescetarian, as it can also hunt mammals and lizards when fish are not on the menu.

Author Note: The bird typically migrates to southern regions during the winter and travels back up north in summer.

9. California Spotted Owl

california spotted owl

As the name suggests, the California Spotted Owl is one of the unique species that can be found in a few pockets near the southwestern region of the United States.

The bird’s scientific name is “Strix occidentalis” and it has a generally dark brown body with a few markings of white. The facial disk of the bird is also brown and has a noticeable pale X on its face with brown eyes.

Like all other owl species, this one is more active during the night where it hunts down small mammals, such as squirrels, rats, and other small rodents. The bird is mostly found in wooded forests and is highly unlikely to be spotted in residential areas.

10. Ferruginous Hawk

Large Ferruginous Hawk in attack mode with blue sky

The Ferruginous Hawk is also known scientifically as “Buteo regalis”. The bird of prey is one of the largest, if not the largest, of all the buteo hawks in America.

The bird comes in both light and dark varieties, both of which have feathers all the way down to their talons, but they come in shades of gray, brown, white, and everything in between.

This one can feed on small mammals, birds, amphibians, and even reptiles!

11. Red-Tailed Hawk

red tailed hawk

The Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is one of the most popular hawks all over the United States, as it’s one of the most widespread raptors, in general, throughout the area.

The bird of prey exists all year round in California, especially in southern regions, and it feeds on a variety of small mammals, such as mice, rats, etc.

Top Tip: The bird is typically large with a length of about 23 inches due to its long reddish brown tail that makes them easy to identify.

12. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

sharp shinned hawk flying

The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is one of the two species of Accipiter hawks in America (known as Accipiter striatus).

This group of birds is characterized by its slender body when compared to Buteo hawks, and they typically feed on small songbirds that hang around bird feeders. That’s why it’s quite common to spot these raptors around your backyard.

When that happens, make sure that you take down your bird feeder for a few days until the Sharp-Shinned Hawk moves along its way.

13. Cooper’s Hawk

coopers hawk in a tree

The other Accipiter bird on the list is Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). This one is named after one of the most popular American ornithologists “William Cooper”.

While this bird is quite similar to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, you can tell them apart from the red colored eyes of Cooper’s versus the dark eyes of its counterpart.

The bird of prey is also small, and like the other one, this one also has an appetite for small songbirds, which is why they like to hang around bird feeders as well.

14. White-Tailed Kite

white tailed kite in a tree

The White-Tailed Kite is also fairly popular in California. The fully-protected raptor’s scientific name is “Elanus leucurus” and it is known for its pale color, especially its white colored tail and the black patches on the shoulder. Another noticeable feature from up close is the bird’s red eyes.

Author Note: The bird is known for its tendencies to prey on small mammals and unique flying patterns.

The kite likes to beat its wings in the counter-direction of the wind with the head and tail angled downwards.

The bird usually gathers in roosts and can be found in open woodlands, marshes, and grasslands.

15. Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

As the name suggests the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) has reddish brown plumage across its shoulder and wings with a heavy checkered appearance with black and white.

The bird feeds on a variety of small mammals and birds (including waterfowl) but it also doesn’t mind other species, such as amphibians and reptiles. The bird typically lives in wooded areas with water bodies nearby.

16. American Barn Owl

american barn owl in a tree

This one is pretty unique in terms of looks and goes by various common names, such as “ghost owl”, “church owl” and “monkey faced owl”. However, its scientific name is “Tyto alba”.

You can easily spot and identify this bird thanks to its flat face with a noticeable heart shaped facial disk and pale color. The bird typically hangs around old wooden buildings, such as barns.

17. American Kestrel

American Kestrel

This American Kestrel is known scientifically as “Falco sparverius” but they’re classified as a hawk and not a falcon.

The raptor is actually considered the smallest of all hawks in all of the North American continent, which is why many people call it the “sparrowhawk”.

In addition to its tiny size, you can identify the bird by the steely blue patches on its wings and heads.

Despite being a small bird of prey, the American Kestrel is known for having an appetite for a wide array of small mammals as birds.

18. Northern Goshawk

northern goshawk

The Northern Goshawk, also known as “Accipiter gentilis” lives in California throughout the year, especially in the south. Goshawk is one old English word that means a “goose hawk”, which is a term used to describe raptors that feed on geese and waterfowl.

However, the northern goshawk can feast on a variety of other birds, such as crows, woodpeckers, doves, and even other mammals like hares, squirrels, raccoons, rats, and more!

The bird has a unique look with heavily checkered underparts and dark feathers on the back. The raptor typically reaches an average length of 20 to 27 inches and has a large wingspan of about 3 to 4 feet, but they’re relatively lightweight when compared to other birds of prey.

19. Northern Harrier

northern harrier close up

The Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) is a bird that is typically found all year round in California. Not only that, but you can also find it in various areas around the state.

The bird has a medium sized body that can reach up to about 20 inches with a larger wingspan of about 45 to 50 inches.

The females of this species are noticeably heavier than the males and they both feed on a wide range of small birds and mammals.

Final Thoughts

This wraps it up for today’s guide about the most amazing birds of prey that you may come across if you are in California. We hope you enjoyed our guide on the most common California birds of prey.

As you can see, the raptor scene in the state is simply brilliant and comes in all colors, so make sure that you don’t miss out on enjoying them!

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