Like every other specialized activity, the noble pursuit of bird watching has accumulated its own collection of jargon, slang, and scientific vocabulary. Fortunately, there’s not too much to learn. If we all pull together, pretty soon we’ll be talking like the pros.
What is pishing?
One of the most important and perhaps inscrutable words in birding parlance is ‘pish’ as in, “It only took a little bit of pishing to get that LBJ out of the bush.” Pishing, typically deployed in the hopes of a better chance to identify skulking or ambiguous birds, is human-avian communication along the lines of “Pssst… over here”, which even in a crowd invariably causes your head to turn to see if you’re the one being “pssst” at. Pishing is an accepted practice among birders, although there is some debate regarding the ethics of the activity.
How does one pish?
Quite simply, to pish is to say “pish, pish, pish” several times in the hopes that curious birds will come and investigate. There’s no real right or wrong way to pish. In fact, one should experiment with different variations until finding a style that works. A pish usually isn’t too loud and sounds like you are trying to silence someone: Psshh. Coincidentally, this is the same sound you might hear from another birder if you dare raise your voice above a soft whisper when you’re out watching since birds are sensitive creatures that will fly away if they hear so much as a cough, etc. etc.
Another form of pishing is also known as ‘squeaking.’ To squeak, noisily kiss the back of your hand in order to attract hidden birds. This form of pishing makes a noise like a bird scolding a predator, which often entices other birds to join the harangue. It does not, however, entice other birders to join the kissing of your hand, for which you’ll usually be most thankful.
Every birder seems to have a different style of pish, so much so that you might have more success identifying birders by their calls than the birds themselves. Take this as an invitation to innovate your own perfect pish.
Does pishing work?
Surprisingly, pishing really does work, though not everywhere. As any North American birder will tell you, pishing works amazingly well over most of the continent. More proficient pishers than I can coax curious chickadees to land on their heads. Pishing also works well in northern Europe but isn’t always as successful in the Tropics. While some adepts may have enticed normally furtive antbirds to hop right onto their hiking boots as they stood and pished in the jungle, our field correspondents have had little luck with pishing in the forests of Brazil or Venezuala, or Kenya or Nigeria.
The amazing thing about pishing is that when it works, it appears akin to magic; a barren tree can appear to suddenly fruit with tiny songbirds scrambling to spot the source of the sibilant swooshing!
Of course, you might not always succeed in charming flocks of birds to attend your impromptu oration. In some cases, the problem will be your technique; you may be a world-class pisher but I have yet to find my voice, as it were. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that if the birds aren’t responding to your enticements to come join the party, it might not be that you’re doing it all wrong, but that they just aren’t hard-wired to come flocking.
Remember too that once the birds have realized that the odd noise they’re hearing isn’t coming from a highly agitated sparrow or squirrel, they’ll pull away and get back to doing what they were doing before you turned up and pished at them. Staying in cover and keeping still reaps rewards; pishing loudly as you leap about like a scalded cat doesn’t.
Why does pishing work?
There are numerous theories why birds respond. One is that birds are attracted because pishing mimics the sound of a bird that is hurt or in trouble. Another that pishing sounds like the anxiety calls some birds give, which forces other birds in the area to see for themselves where any source of danger might be. The sound also resembles the scolding alarm many squirrels gives when they have found a predator or even the beating wings of a giant insect. Another rather compelling theory is that birds are innately curious about humans making weird pish noises under their trees!
Sounds like fun. How do I get started?
For what should be obvious reasons, pishing is best done in the company of other birders or, even better, deep in the woods far from everyone. Non-birders don’t seem to understand… let’s face it, “pishing” is an odd enough word, let alone behavior. Pishing should also be avoided in any situation that might bring peril to birds, such as when cats or raptors are hunting in the area. Finally, keep in mind that birding ethics call for a non-invasive relationship with birds. You wouldn’t throw a rock at a bird just to flush it from the bush (right?) so do not disturb them needlessly by pishing them if you don’t need to. Last but not least, show respect; if the birds aren’t responding, don’t push them. Now, pish off!
I generaly only phish solo.-Song Sparrows and,Catbirds, and Chickadees usually jump right in-I have had luck with much else though.-I’m still working on it.
“Solo phishing”. Sounds like one of those really obscure Olympic sports we need at Beijing 2008 to bump up the medal tally of Team GB :))
I’m one of those people who finds pishing, at best, vaguely improper. Why should my desire to see a bird trump whatever the bird was doing? I also find that when people aren’t in such a hurry, pishing becomes very unecessary.
Just sit down and wait. Birds find a sitting and still human, apparently, just as interesting as pishing human, though it takes them longer to get brave enough to investigate. A bonus is that when I’m still, the birds will continue their normal activity, which is a lot more fun to watch up close than a scolding bird.
Larry, I hope you’re not
phishing. The attempt to criminally and fraudulently acquire sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords and credit card details, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication really does nothing for birds!
I know what you’re saying, Carolyn. Sometimes, a birder can get the best results by just sitting still, not that I’m patient enough to really put that to the test.
I have no problem with spishing, it only works with a few species anyway, namely Sparrows and Chickadees. Why do I do it, because I know that other birds such as Kinglets and Warblers follow Chickadee flocks, especially in the fall. As a result of the Chickadees coming in (they will usually follow you around anyway) those other birds are often become slightly more visible, but it does them no harm.
I also use tapes to call rails and owls, but I don’t like to use Owl calls to call small birds in. That I believe creates more stress. Spishing only works in short bursts. Usually the few chickadees who respond show up see you are not very exciting and move on. They are not alarmed and I have found it doesn’t work well in the spring.
Ahh..to pish or not to pish! The “experts” say that as long as it isn’t excessive, it is okay to pish.
I’ve noticed that excessive pishing will usually just cause a bird to start ignoring you…they check on the noise and then either go about their business or fly away from view. So, I think the “experts” are correct.
Pishing in public is fun though, especially when there are hikers nearby. Song Sparrows are the best pishable bird around here- they jump up in full view, look around in a pished-off manner and then back into the brush they go!
I don’t particularly like the use of tapes, but I figure if I can attract a bird by a noise I make, it’s fair game. That means any number of different pishes plus a Screech-Owl thrown in for good measure occasionally.
I do tend to hold back on early mornings following very cold nights though. Those are the ones toughest on the birds and I’ll wait till the sun comes up a bit to allow them to find some food before I distract them.
Over here in Europe (haha, like I’m an expert) spishing seems to not work at all. Even the tits ignore it! I did, however, get a nuthatch to freak out at me pretty good, but it didn’t come any closer.
Corey, you need to empty your mouth of beer and pretzels first…:)
No wonder I’m no good at it, I can’t even spell it right!
Hi Corey, pishing doesnâ€™t work to well in Germany, but I had sometimes large numbers of tits (Great, Blue, etc), Eurasian Nuthatch, and Long-tailed Tits (in the same family as your Bushtit) in Berlin parks reacting frantically to it. Just try again. And Bearded Tit (or Bearded Reedling/Bearded Parrotbill) in Germany (check reedbeds!) react very well to a short explosive â€œpshhâ€-sound! Here in western Mongolia interestingly Great Tit seems to react always to pishing, while Azure Tit (closely related to Blue Tit) never reacts. A bonus here is that Spotted Great Rosefinch Carpodacus severtzovi reacts â€“ a species quite difficult to find at all! http://birdsmongolia.blogspot.com
Axel – great to hear from you. I really must find some time to come and see a Spotted Great Rosefinch react to pishing for myself!!
Axel-Bearding Reedlings don’t exist. They are a conspiracy put forth by European birders to make Americans look foolish. 🙂
Hi Corey, Yeah, I understand. “Bearded Reedlings” – sounds to me just like some more animate chimera contrived by J. R. R. Tolkien! (Though when speeding along the German no-speed-limit-highways with a Mercedes you’ll easily meet some orcs!)
I walk and look for birds almost every day, I’ve tried pishing dozens of times with zero success, but we were traveling in the Yukon Territory a few years ago, I was sick and had to stay in our van so wasn’t able to accompany my wife when she and other campers went out on a walk with the resident naturalist. The group glimpsed a tree sparrow that disappeared into the shrubbery, my wife tried pishing for the first time in her life and the bird bounded up into sight. “Wow! How did you do that?” The naturalist was amazed; she only smiled sweetly and didn’t choose to reveal any secrets.
I was on a very narrow trail in the spruce/fir forest of Downeast Maine. I could hear the Boreal chickadees very close but couldn’t see them. It took two or three sets of pishes and one landed on a branch about six inches from my head (in full view). I’m a believer in pishing, but I think a little bit goes a long way.
I’m from Australia, and I find pishing works pretty well here, even if I’m in North Aus. The best birds it works for here are Thornbills and small Honeyeaters. (Though, you probably all don’t know what they are since you’re all from Europe and America) 😉
Hey Josh – Never underestimate the 10,000 Birds crew: I’ve birded in Sydney many times, birded in Adelaide/the Flinders Ranges, stayed at Lamington National Park outside Brisbane, and birded around Perth. How are you on Phoebes or Phylloscopus warblers 🙂
tried it before in my compound, but only vinous-throated parrotbills responded….
Larry, I wish parrotbills would come when I pished!
Just last weekend while participating in the Yosemite Christmas Bird Count, I was informed that pishing is illegal in the park. I didn’t ask them what law rendered it illegal, ’cause we were busy looking for and counting birds, but apparently, pishing can be so effective at drawing birds out, that in spring when birds are sitting on eggs, they’ll leave the nest to see what the sound is. And that can lead to lower reproductive success. I had NO idea. (also I have no references to back this up, all new to me, so take w/grain of salt)
I surmised right then and there that next to ZERO people who bird in the park (& in other national parks, or other areas that grant birds the same protections) have ANY idea that pishing is illegal (again, I need to confirm this and figure out what specific laws make it illegal) and/or can harm the birds. And that pishing during the breeding season might even lower reproductive success. I probably should have figured it out, though, as you are clearly influencing their behavior.
So, as of now, I’m with Carolyn Hoffman (earlier comment here)–gonna’ go pish free, and just be patient. As she mentioned, a major bonus is I get to see something closer to unaltered wild bird behavior.
Food for thought.
Just got this from Yosemite’s ornithologist. Apparently she’s not aware of any laws, rule, policy or regulation that mentions pishing per se (I didn’t expect it to be mentioned specifically), but they do list 3 rules of responsible birding in Yosemite, here: http://www.nps.gov/yose/naturescience/birding-tips.htm. And she says those rules are backed up by the Code of Federal Regulations or the NPS National Parks Omnibus Act. =)
Annnnnd, I’m out.