The Fine Art of Pishing
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!