How do you identify California hawks?

Answered by Jason Smith

Identifying hawks in California can be an exciting and rewarding experience for bird enthusiasts. There are several key characteristics to look for when identifying California hawks, specifically the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. Let’s delve into the details to help you become a hawk identification expert.

1. Head Shape: One of the most distinguishing features to observe is the shape of the hawk’s head. The Sharp-shinned Hawk has a curved head, giving it a somewhat hunched appearance. On the other hand, the Cooper’s Hawk has a flatter head with a slightly longer neck. This difference in head shape can be a helpful clue in identification.

2. Neck Length: Pay attention to the length of the hawk’s neck. The Sharp-shinned Hawk typically has a shorter neck compared to the Cooper’s Hawk, which has a slightly longer neck. This difference might be subtle, but it can aid in distinguishing between the two species.

3. Geographic Distribution: Another important aspect to consider is the year-round population distribution in Southern California. Unlike the Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharp-shinned Hawk does not have a year-round population in Southern California. So, if you spot a hawk in this region, it is more likely to be a Cooper’s Hawk.

4. Size and Shape: While head shape and neck length are helpful, it’s also crucial to note the overall size and shape of the hawk. The Cooper’s Hawk is generally larger, with a wingspan of around 30-36 inches, while the Sharp-shinned Hawk is smaller, with a wingspan of approximately 20-28 inches. Additionally, the Sharp-shinned Hawk has a shorter tail compared to the Cooper’s Hawk, which has a longer, rounded tail.

5. Flight Pattern: Observing the hawk’s flight pattern can also provide valuable clues for identification. The Sharp-shinned Hawk tends to have faster, more agile flight, often with rapid wing beats and quick turns. The Cooper’s Hawk, although also agile, tends to have a more deliberate and powerful flight, with deeper wing beats.

6. Plumage: examining the hawk’s plumage can be helpful, but it requires a closer look. Both species have similar coloration, with dark gray to black upperparts and reddish-barred underparts. However, the Cooper’s Hawk may have a slightly more rufous-colored breast compared to the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Paying attention to these subtle color variations can assist in accurate identification.

Remember, hawk identification can be challenging, and it may take practice and experience to become proficient. Field guides, online resources, and local birding communities can provide additional support for learning and refining your identification skills. So grab your binoculars, head out into the field, and enjoy the thrill of identifying California hawks!