If you think that birders have a nerdy stereotype . . . you know, old men wearing plaid shorts with black socks, half glasses and binoculars hanging on our neck, notebooks and field guides hanging from our belt loops. . . you should hear us in the field. A group of birders hissing, squeaking, and hooting on a bird walk does not help dispel that bird nerd image. This month we will talk about pishing, or the art of attracting birds.
Phishing is easy. Keep your teeth together and say "pish" with your lips as you exhale forcibly. Repeat often. It can be performed in a variety of ways. Try it loud and soft, do it fast and slow, end it abruptly so it sounds like "sssshk," and don't be afraid to experiment.
The remarkable thing is, it works. At least it can work. Sometimes you can pish and pish until your lips are sore and get no reaction. Other times though, birds will pop up out of nowhere and gather in the trees just overhead—huge flocks of chickadees, bushtits, titmice—all coming to see what the noise is about. Other birds become attracted to the commotion and soon you can have many species of birds at close range, some of them calling, and fluttering their wings, which only adds to the excitement. Sometimes it helps to be partially hidden when pishing. Stand under a tree branch and the birds could come within arm's reach.
It is thought that pishing works because it roughly imitates the alarm calls of small passerine birds. I have heard Hutton's Vireos pishing at me when I came too close, and Bewick's Wrens will give a "bzzzzsht" call when alarmed—try imitating that too while you're at it, by adding a humming sound to your pishing. I have pished bushtits to within inches of my face, and I've had wrens walking on my boots. It's really fun when it works well.
Try mixing in a few squeaks into your pishing routine too. You can buy squeakers—small metal tubes that you twist to produce high-pitched squeaks—but you can also make the squeaks by kissing the back of your hand or by just using the lips. I once was extricating a Spotted Towhee from a mist net, and it was giving an incredibly loud and piercing squeal. It ended up attracting other birds to the area, some of which were also caught in the net, so it certainly can work.
Another technique that can work very well is to imitate a Northern Pygmy Owl call. These small owls are diurnal hunters--they prey on small birds in the light of day--and the birds do not like the presence of the owl one bit. If done well, a pygmy owl call can attract a large flock of birds, all gathering to scold the predator. And conversely, I have been alerted to a small owl's presence by the large flock of scolding birds.
You can certainly download a Pygmy Owl call and play it back on your electronic device in the field, but it is easily imitated by the simplest of whistles. You can hear two examples of the owl's call here, and click on the two types of calls at the bottom of the page. A few times I have attracted a Pygmy Owl to the trees near me, and sometimes you can get the owl to respond.
When a group of us are out birding and several of us are pishing it's really a sight to behold. One may be doing an owl call, while some are squeaking and others are pishing. Like I said, non-birders already think we're a strange bunch, so wear that nerd badge proudly and regale the woods with all your pishing glory.
Warning label: Pish responsibly. Be aware that in the spring and early summer, you may be causing a bird to leave its nest. And never, ever, drink and pish.