Pishing for Birds

Pishing for Birds
Pishing for Birds

No, that is not a typo. It really is P-ishing, and not the familiar F-ishing. So...what is it? And how do you do it? And, importantly, should you?

Most perching birds, also known as passerines, are inhabitants of forested areas. All those trees, with all their leaves, make for a pretty thick cover to hide tiny birds- birds which, in the inverse of a childhood homily, can often be heard but not seen. When the goal is to actually see the bird in question in order to identify it positively, birders have used a technique for centuries that is simply called pishing. Just like it sounds, pishing is the forming of compressed, thinly pursed lips into a p-s-s-h-h-h that is repeated rapidly. P-s-s-h-h-h, p-s-s-h-h-h, p-s-s-h-h-h, p-s-s-h-h-h... The tongue is usually tightly placed against the back of the front teeth. This sound, and its variants, serves to engage the curiosity of the hidden birds and to entice them to come closer and into view. Birds that seem most yielding to the suggestible sound are tufted titmice and chickadees. And where they go, others are sure to follow. Nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers, flycatchers, warblers, cardinals and sparrows are just a few of the songbirds one can call in to view.

Most scientists are in agreement that the sound is attractive to the birds because it mimics the mobbing calls of some songbirds used to summon other species to join them in surrounding and driving off predator birds (such as hawks and owls). It is also thought that the sound is similar to calls for other birds to join in a food feast when a particularly abundant source has been found.

The practice has its vehement detractors within and without the birding community. Leading ornithologists on both sides of the debate have weighed in over the years. Pishing is said to disrupt mate selection, cause nest and mate abandonment, interrupt feeding, drive birds away (hawks, for instance, can be flushed this way only because they are hurriedly getting out of Dodge when they hear the sound), and exhaust already stressed birds who are in migration. Advocates claim that judicious and timely use of the practice can contribute to scientific counts and verification of resident bird species. Many songbirds are quite shy, and they do not call except during mating season, so they are not heard at all, and must be drawn out in order to be seen and inventoried.

It is agreed, however, that ethics demand certain standards when pishing: go where the birds are; pish and stop and wait; do not pish when the temperature is far below freezing, or the human birding traffic is high, or when the birds are mating and nesting, or when hawks are near. Also, refrain from pishing if other birders nearby object.

Pishing and other imitative noises are effective measures for drawing out birds so they can be seen, photographed, listed, inventoried, or shared with a bird tour or your own family or classroom. Use it wisely and judiciously, and when in doubt, please don’t. Err always on the side of the birds.

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