Even if you have the best binoculars and field guides that money can buy, they are useless if that bird not only won’t come out of the bushes, but it also refuses to sing. And getting only occasional glances at the grayish-brown blob as it slips quietly through the dense branches is not very conducive to easy identification. So how do you get a good look at the bird? Simple; you pucker up and pish.
What is pishing?
Pishing is a term which refers to a variety of strange noises made by the mouth in order to attract birds. The usual pishing is done by puckering the lips, as if to kiss your significant other, and blowing out while making a ‘psssh psssh psssh’ sound. Variations include gritting the teeth to produce a ‘ksssh ksssh ksssh’, or holding the tongue to the roof of the mouth to produce a softer ‘psss psss psss’. Regardless of how it’s done, the end result is the same: curious birds will come closer to identify the source of the sound.
No one is completely certain why pishing works but there are numerous theories.
Mobbing a Predator
One plausible explanation is that the sound resembles an alarm call from another bird who is mobbing a potential predator; birds will rush towards the sound to help their bird-buddies drive off the intruder. This kind of mobbing behavior is commonplace among prey species. A common example of this behavior involves the serene Red-tailed Hawk on the fencepost, being dive-bombed and harassed by a gaggle of excited and screaming crows.
Cooperative mobbing may not only distract a predator but it may also lessen the predator’s chances of scoring a kill among the members of a bird’s flock.
For juvenile birds, the mobbing behavior may also be a way of teaching them predator recognition skills, a kind of “know thine enemy” class. So pishing may simply be evoking a strong behavioral response in the birds.
Begging for Food
Another theory is that the pishing sound is similar to that made by young nestlings begging for food. This would explain why pishing is so successful at attracting birds during the breeding season. At other times of the year, pishing is still effective, but usually not to the same extent as during the spring and early summer seasons.
Response by Different Species
The effectiveness of pishing also varies greatly according to species. Some birds, like chickadees and nuthatches, will come quite close to you, often very quickly. Other species, especially the non-passerines, will ignore the pishing sounds or fly off. And still others, such as the warblers, will vary their response according to the species of warbler.
There are also reports that pishing has attracted Northern Harriers, ducks, rails, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, squirrels, domestic (feral) cats, coyotes and even elicited responses from frogs.
And of course, pishing is a very effective way of attracting other birdwatchers to your location. It’s not uncommon for pishing to result in the sudden appearance of birdwatchers who are hidden by nearby trees.
The use of pishing raises some ethical questions regarding its effect on a bird. If a bird has to be continually alert for predators, wouldn’t pishing increase its vulnerability to predation by bringing the bird out of its cover and into the open? That is certainly possible but there are several reasons why pishing may not be a cause for concern.
Most birders have found that attracting birds through pishing will hold their attention for only a moment or two before the birds return to their previous activity. Birds are constantly being ‘disturbed’ by sounds in their habitats, so pishing becomes just one more noise in a complicated ‘sound environment’.
There is also the belief that once you have pished all the birds in an area, they will not respond to your pishing in that area again for several days, if not longer. This is indicative of an ability by the bird to learn and remember which noises are important and which are nothing more than momentary distractions.
Once attracted by pishing, the first birds to arrive will often announce their presence by calling. In turn, this stimulates others to join in the commotion. This may be exciting for the birder because the birds are now very close and flitting all around, but does this trickery cause distress? Probably not. Birds are fairly intelligent and, while they may be drawn initially to the pishing, they can quickly distinguish a human from a predator. Pished birds only remain around the birder for a very short time before slipping back into the trees and bushes.
A note of caution about pishing and other auditory means of attracting birds. With all of the commercially available methods of enticing birds to approach closer (such as bird song recordings), birders must use care not to unnecessarily disturb the birds, especially during the breeding season when they may be guarding territories or incubating eggs.
But use this practice sparingly during the breeding season; there’s always the possibility that you might pull a bird off its nest, thereby exposing the eggs or young to increased risk of predation. Use your judgment when deciding whether to pish or not to pish.
Although pishing from a spot beyond the cover in which the birds are found may still attract them, it has two drawbacks. First, the birds will most likely not leave their habitat, preferring to stay within protective cover and away from open areas that are favored by potential predators. Second, birds will be unlikely to expose themselves if they can see you while they remain hidden. So, if you hide yourself within the same habitat, the birds will have to come close to find the source of the pishing.
Another tip is to stay perfectly still. Bird vision is very sharp and well-adapted to detect movement. By sitting down and/or remaining stationary, it may take the bird longer to identify you as the source of the sounds. Which means you will have a much longer view of your quarry.
One characteristic that some birders feel is important is that pishing should be prolonged, unhurried and even-toned. The strength of the sound is not as important as the duration, or even the ‘raspiness‘. The more ‘drawn-out raspiness’ to the pish, the better. The incessant, repetitive nature of the sound may be what arouses the birds’ initial curiosity.
One Last Tip
A last word about pishing methods concerns the sticky point of pishing etiquette. Often, the looser and wetter the lips during pishing, the more enticing, and successful, the sound is. In this case, maintaining a position behind an avid pisher may keep you…drier.