You may never have heard about “pishing’, but it’s a great addition to your bird watching skills. And it’s a great way to impress people, if not the birds. I can’t say for sure when I first learned how to do it, but I’m glad I did, because it’s fun and almost guaranteed to bring the birds to you.
Saying the word is basically how it’s done. Put your lips together and breathe out so that the air whistles through your lips and teeth. Try it once. Another way to do it is to make a ‘pssst’ sound; like you’d do to get someone’s attention in a library or other quiet place. But you don’t make this sound just once; you make it over and over. That’s how you know you’re ‘pishing’.
Either way, the goal is to draw birds in close. Some say that the sound is reminiscent of a distress call birds will make, so others come to see what is happening. All I know is that when I hear twittering from a cluster of (usually) small birds gathered in the branches of trees overhead, I stop and start to ‘pish’. It is very important to have patience, because sometimes it takes a few minutes for the birds to start to investigate, but as soon as one or two venture near, others soon follow. It is important to keep making the sound, because if you stop they lose interest and move away. So it is also helps if you have good lung power.
When you are with people, especially non-birder types it is as if you’re performing magic, or that you are channeling St. Francis of Assisi. Very often the braver or more curious birds will hop down to branches less than a foot away. The best candidate for this behavior is in the Chickadee family. But, they are often joined by Nuthatches,
Woodpeckers and Warblers (in season). Here at home I am most often able to call in the Black-capped Chickadees, but just this week I was in Seattle and on a hike through a forest with my sister. I am into birding – she is not, but she humors me when we go out walking and I stop to look for birds.
On this morning as we went down the trail through what I’d call a temperate rain forest, I suddenly heard that telltale sound in the branches overhead so I stopped and started to ‘Pish’ . She’d never heard me do this, but before long she could see what was happening. She watched in amazement as more and more birds flew to the branches around me, all twittering in response to my ‘call’. I was getting excited too, because with my binoculars I could see that these Chickadees were a different species by the color of the feathers on their backs. These were the Chestnut-backed Chickadees which are only found on the northwest coast of North America. I had been hoping to add them to my year list.
I also saw another bird with a distinctive white eye ring, and greenish gray colored body, which may have been a Hutton’s Vireo, but I couldn’t say for sure. On the trunk of another tree I spotted a woodpecker like bird with an entirely reddish head, which
I’m quite sure was a Red-breasted Sapsucker, also a northwest species. I was giggling with delight at finding all these birds, simply because I had stopped at that spot and called the birds in with my strange sounding behavior. You can’t be self-conscious when you do this, if you want it to work.
There are times when it fails to intrigue the birds, but you just chalk that up to experience and move on until the next opportunity presents itself. I encourage you to try it sometime too.
By Kate Crowley