Rules are Only So Good if You Follow Them


The Cooper’s Hawk that is always at Northwest Park. 9/12/15

In the previous post I set down 4 steps I use to ID large raptors. 

I’ll get back to the rules in a minute but first let’s back up a bit to earlier in the previous post BEFORE I saw the Osprey.

Mike and I were once again spending a Saturday morning at Northwest Park in Greenwood looking for migrants. We saw a few but all in all it was pretty slow. Slow enough that after an hour Mike opted to go get his tires rotated instead of looking at empty tree branches.  But I thought I’d give it a few more minutes before heading to the local shorebird site.

After a few minutes I heard the call of a raptor.  My urban mindset is such that in town hawks are either Cooper’s or occasionally Red-taileds. Now bear in mind that I have seen a Cooper’s Hawk every time I bird Northwest Park.  So I go a few minutes chasing some Red-eyed Vireos when it dawns on me it is a Red-shouldered Hawk calling. Not a Cooper’s Hawk.

I have now been birding in Indianapolis area for about a year.  In all that time I have yet to see a Red-shouldered Hawk within the city limits.  I assumed they’re here but I have never seen one. So I’m predisposed not to think about Red-shouldered Hawks in town.

The Blue Jays mobbing the Red-shouldered Hawk were doing a good job of stirring up songbirds giving good looks at warblers flying about.

Since no one was with me I could chalk up the experience to learning without having have a little egg on my face.

And don’t ask me how someone birding for more than a couple of years could mistake the call of the Red-shouldered Hawk from a Cooper’s Hawk.

First, the Cooper’s Hawk (Paul Marvin, XC177264. Accessible at

Next the Red-shouldered Hawk (Steve Pelikan, XC44321. Accessible at

Then I proceeded to the shorebird spot and saw the Osprey.

Now let’s jump ahead to the next morning.

So now it’s the next day, Sunday morning, and I start at the shorebird spot before the shimmer of the water comes makes viewing the far side difficult.

Immediately after setting up a hawk flies across from one grove of trees to the other.  Maybe a 100 meters. Maybe 10 seconds.

It’s obviously not as big as a Red-tailed Hawk and I’m in town so it’s got to be a Cooper’s Hawk. Correct?

I put the binoculars on it to confirm the Cooper’s Hawk ID and I see the bright “windows” on the primaries.  A Red-shouldered Hawk. And the day after learning to add Red-shouldered Hawks to my thought process in town. 

The experience shows just how hard wired brains are. A Red-shouldered didn’t even cross my mind.

I know from field guides and personal observation that Red-shoulder Hawks show the bright primaries in flight in all lighting conditions.  And the “windows” were prominent. And it perched for a few minutes in the tree to confirm the ID.

RSHA Atterbury B
A Red-shouldered Hawk showing the bright “windows” on the primaries.


RSHA Atterbury A


Like all rules they are only good if you follow them.

Especially your own.

So I guess it will take a few more encounters before I change my bias of Red-shoulders in town. So EXPAND your mind and think through all the possibilities.


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