Birder Jargon Project: Pish off
The tool kit of the birder is famously spartan. While it is the rage these days to pack on your person electronics, books, and camera, and while I am as guilty as the next birder at weighing myself down with mostly unnecessary add-ons, pretty much all you need to go birding is a simple pair of binoculars around your neck. And there are those that would even argue that that’s non-essential. Because while binoculars are tools by which you can more easily identify those flitting shapes in the treetops or those smudges of color on the far side of a lake, there are means at the birder’s disposal to instead bring the birds in to you. The most popular of which is the fine art, and it truly is an art, of “pishing“.
We birders are already well inoculated against the raised eyebrows and incredulous looks on the faces of our non-birding friends when some of our more bizarre terms are brought up in mixed company. We certainly don’t do ourselves any favors, though. One only needs to explain the concept of “jizz” to fellow dinner party guests once before you hold your tongue and avoid that next glass of wine. Pishing is certainly less entendre-friendly, but no less bizarre to the uninitiated. And that’s a shame, because pishing is the one thing that birders do that seems legitimately magical to those not in the game.
Pishing is an onomatopoetic word referring to a sound, a sort of amped up shushing, that a birder makes to attract birds. Small songbirds in North America, particularly the Parids (Chickamice to some), are known to exhibit mobbing behavior in response to a threat. They essentially gang up on an owl or a snake in an attempt, presumably, to drive the offender off, though no one is particularly certain precisely how that’s supposed to work. In any case, pishing is supposed to mimic, sort of, that angry, strident, and discordant sound and appeal to these small birds’ curiosity, or maybe their sense of vigilante justice, it’s hard to say. Birders often use it liberally, and, it must be said, too often unsuccessfully.
I referred earlier to pishing as an art, and it is. Good pishers (wicked pishers?) seem to have the ability to make birds appear out of thin air. Bad pishers seem only to annoy their birding companion and send every bird in a kilometer radius hurtling for the densest brush available. I’ve seen both. Recently. The bottom line is that there are different times, places and situations to employ different pishing strategies. I’m no really wicked pisher myself, but I’ve had some success that I can attribute to a pishing strategy that I’ve honed over the years. One that I’ll attempt to share with you now, dear reader. A point of consideration, this would really work better over a beer.
Ok, so the first thing to know about pishing, and it’s incredibly intuitive once your keyed into it, is that you need to listen to the birds. So many birders looking to pish go up to a brush pile and spit out the same boring PISH PISH PISH. This does not work, folks. What bird in North America sounds like PISH PISH PISH? None of them, that’s who. You’re not fooling anyone.
When I was birding in the tropics with some excellent guides several years ago, I was amazed at the extent to which they really worked on imitating the vocalizations of the surrounding species. Not a bird would call or sing that they wouldn’t attempt to whistle or hum. It struck me how simple and ingenious this was, and how rarely you saw birders in North America do this even though the principle was the same.
It seems to me that this is really crucial when you’re trying to initiate mobbing behavior. You need to listen to what the birds are saying and do everything you can to sound like them. Rythym and cadence are key. Are you within range of a chickadee flock? Go peesh-peesh PIRSHPIRSHPIRSHPIRSH. Are you hearing primarily titmice in the distance? Lay a little peespeesPURSHPURSH on them. They’ll come in like gangbusters.
For Carolina Wrens, I’ll try to chatter ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. For gnatcatchers it’ll be a light and nasally peeeesh-peeesh. The bottom like is that your trying your best to imitate the contact calls of the surrounding species. This will change from season to season, but generally the birds will be much more likely to respond and bring in the interesting and shyer warblers and thrushes you want to see anyway. And to do that you really need to listen closely to what’s going on in the field.
Fall is a great time to try out your pishing, because many of the migrating birds are naive first-years that can be easily fooled. I’ve found that, for warblers, a very light pssss-pssss-pssss-pssss was working amazing well, bringing a half dozen species within six feet of me. Too close to even get a photo as the one below will attest.
Contrast this with the next day, when a ran into another birder loudly, and sort of obnoxiously, going PISH PISH PISH PISH, with practically nothing doing. In fact, this auditory assault was scaring away the birds I was bringing in. Don’t let that be you! There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, folks. And the birds know the difference.