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Orange County’s Birds of Prey

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Any time you take a road trip, you’re bound to see at least one bird soaring through the sky. Chances are, it’s a bird of prey! But what is a bird of prey, and what species are you seeing? Let’s dive in and learn about the most common birds of prey in Orange County, how to identify them, and conservation issues they face.

Birds of prey, also known as raptors, are birds that have good eyesight, sharp talons, and hooked beaks. They hunt other animals ranging from insects to large mammals. Approximately thirty (30) raptor species live in California at some point in their lives, and about twenty (20) can be found right here in Orange County.

Young hawk showing off its sharp talons and strong feet. | Photo Courtesy of Peggy Honda

The following five raptors are some of our most common in Orange County: red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, turkey vulture, and osprey. Let’s take a look at how to identify them so you can fully appreciate their splendor in the wild!

  1. Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

The red-tailed hawk is a type of buteo, a group of soaring hawks with broad wings and short tails. Red-tailed hawks live in almost any open area and eat small mammals and birds. Their raspy scream is the classic bird call heard in many movies.

Red-tailed hawks in southern California are mainly year-round residents, meaning they do not fly south for the winter. Individuals that live in Canada, Alaska, and the northern Great Plains will fly to Mexico in the fall and return north in the spring to breed. The only time that red-tailed hawks gather into flocks is during migration!

The red-tailed hawk is relatively large, between the size of a crow and a goose. It has a distinctive dark mark, also known as a patagial mark, on the leading edge of its wing. If you see this mark, you can be almost certain that you are looking at a red-tail! Juveniles also have this patagial mark, but they have darker barring on their wings, more heavily streaked (vertically marked) breasts, and pale, non-red tails with light bars (horizontal marks).

Adult rufous red-tailed hawk | Photo Credit: Lois Manowitz

This species has three general variations in color, known as “color morphs.” The rufous morph has a reddish chest with a dark belly, the dark morph is chocolate brown, and the light morph has a white chest with a dark belly. The rufous and dark morphs are more common in the western part of the U.S., while the light morph is more common in the eastern half.

Juvenile dark morph red-tailed hawk | Photo Courtesy of Peggy Honda

2. Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

The red-shouldered hawk is also a type of buteo, with broad wings and a short tail. It lives in forested areas but can also be found in suburban areas with lots of trees. They eat small animals and only occasionally eat birds. Red-shouldered hawks on the West Coast are mostly non-migratory, but those that live in the northeastern U.S. will fly to southern states during the fall and return home in the spring.

Red-shouldered hawks are slightly smaller than red-tails but are still between the size of a crow and a goose. When perched, you can easily see their checkerboard backs and red shoulders. When they soar, you can see translucent crescents on their wings. Juveniles also have these crescents, but they are more brown, have streaked (vertically marked) breasts, and thinner tail bands.

Adult red-shouldered hawk | Photo Credit: All About Birds

3. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

The Cooper’s hawk is an accipiter. All accipiters have short wings and long tails, and they are also called “true hawks” because of their distinctive body shape that makes them easy to recognize. There are fifty-one (51) accipiter species worldwide, but only three (the Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and northern goshawk) are found in North America.

Cooper’s hawks hunt medium-sized birds like jays and quails, and they typically ignore smaller songbirds. Cooper’s hawks live in forested areas, but they are now more prevalent in towns than in their natural habitat due to the abundance of prey like doves and pigeons. These hawks are residents across most of the United States, but those in the northernmost regions of the country fly to the southern U.S. or Mexico during the fall and spend the winter there.

Cooper’s hawks are about the size of a crow, so they are smaller than red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Compared to red-tails and red-shoulders, Cooper’s hawks have shorter wings and heads that project farther beyond their wings. They also have longer tails with a thick, white band on the end. The thick terminal band is an easy way to distinguish them from red-shouldered hawks.

Adult Cooper’s hawk | Photo Credit: All About Birds

Adult and juvenile Cooper’s hawks look very different. Adult Cooper’s hawks have blue-gray heads, red eyes, and barred breasts, while juveniles have brown heads, yellow eyes, and streaked breasts.

Juvenile Cooper’s hawk | Photo Courtesy of Peggy Honda

4. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Turkey vultures live in a variety of open areas, including desert and farmland. They have dull talons since they feed on dead animals, or carrion, rather than live prey. Amazingly, turkey vultures can eat carcasses without getting sick, thanks to their strong stomach acid that kills bacteria and viruses.

In southern California, turkey vultures are residents and stay year-round. However, turkey vultures in the northwestern United States will migrate as far as Central America during the fall! Those migrants spend the winter in the tropics and return home in the spring.

Turkey vultures are large birds - bigger than a goose. They are in the same family as the California Condor, Cathartidae, but condors are much larger, with a wingspan of 9 feet compared to the turkey vulture wingspan of 5 to 6 feet. They soar in large circles while tipping their dihedral wings back and forth, making them look wobbly. Adults have bright red, featherless heads and pale bills, while juveniles have ash-gray heads and dark bills.

Adult turkey vulture | Photo Credit: All About Birds

5. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

The osprey, also called the fish hawk, was once classified as a hawk. Now, it is classified as its own raptor group and is the only species in the family Pandionidae and the genus Pandion. They mostly eat live fish, so they live near shallow waters like rivers, lakes, and marshes.

Ospreys that live in colder areas, such as the northeastern United States, migrate to Central and South America for the winter. Those individuals can travel more than 160,000 miles in their lifetime! In southern California, ospreys migrate here from the northwestern U.S. during the fall and return north in the spring. However, in 2006, a pair of ospreys remained in Orange County during the spring, rather than returning north. That pair laid eggs, resulting in an osprey nest in Orange County for the first time in 100 years! Since then, ospreys have made a comeback in southern California, with at least 3 nests in Orange County in 2010.

Ospreys have brown backs and white bellies, and they have thick brown lines that go through their eyes. They have dark wing tips, dark stripes through the middle of their wings, and dark patches on their wrists. This pattern of dark feathers makes an “M” shape. Juvenile ospreys look similar to adults, but they have white tips on their back feathers.

Adult osprey | Photo Credit: All About Birds

When you see a soaring bird of prey, whether it's by the road, above a neighborhood, or over the ocean, take a moment to study it. Note its behavior, coloration, and body shape, and look for specific markings and characteristics to identify the species. Field guides by David Sibley or National Geographic and smartphone apps like iNaturalist or iBirdpro will help you learn more details about each species. You’ll be surprised by the diversity of raptors in Orange County!

Unfortunately, raptors face several human-caused threats, including rodenticide poisoning, lead poisoning, and window strikes.

Rodenticide is poison used to kill rodents. When rodents consume poisoned bait, they often wander away from the bait and are easy targets for predators. When predators like raptors, coyotes, or mountain lions eat poisoned rodents, the poison builds up in their bodies in a process called bioaccumulation. Birds with mild poisoning can recover after receiving treatment, but those with severe poisoning often do not recover and perish. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of certain rodenticide ingredients in 2015 to reduce their harmful effects on wildlife, but the problem still persists.

Lead bullets pose another threat to raptors, especially those that scavenge. When hunters shoot game with lead bullets, the bullets break into small pieces. If the hunter leaves part of the game behind, scavengers like turkey vultures and bald eagles consume the animal along with the bullet fragments. Once in the stomach, the lead enters the bloodstream and travels around the body. In mild cases, birds can be given medication that cleans the bloodstream. Recovery can take over a year, but some birds may die or have permanent damage and can’t be released back to the wild.

Lead bullets (left) shatter on impact, while copper bullets (right) stay intact. | Photo Credit: NPS

Window strikes are a common cause of injury for raptors, especially Cooper’s hawks. During the day, songbirds hit windows because they see vegetation reflected from them. When raptors hit windows, it is often because they are chasing a songbird that flies toward a window, thinking it sees vegetation for cover. When the songbird crashes into the window, the raptor does too. At night, window strikes occur when migrating birds become disoriented by bright lights and crash. Raptors may be slightly dazed after a minor window strike, but they can recover in as little as 15 minutes when placed in a dark room. After major strikes, birds can be treated for injuries and released within a month if they make a full recovery.

You might now be wondering how you can reduce your impact on birds of prey or actively help these unique animals. First, you can avoid rat poison and keep outdoor areas clean of food and debris to avoid attracting rodents. Second, you can install tinted film or mosquito screens to windows to prevent window strikes. Turning off excess outdoor lights and redirecting them downward will reduce confusion when birds are migrating at night. Third, you can donate to rescue organizations to help pay for a raptor’s medical costs. Through the Orange County Bird of Prey Center (OCBPC), you can sponsor a bird and personally release it back to the wild! Lastly, you can volunteer with local organizations such as the OCBPC or International Bird Rescue to support their missions of bird rehabilitation and community education. Any action you take, whether small or large, can make a positive difference in the lives of local raptors!

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