What does it mean to be a “birder” or a “bird watcher”? Some of us pursue birds in the field as academic or scientific pursuits. We tend to shade those activities over into “ornithology” which is, perhaps too simply, the scientific study of birds. The rest of us have this passion to find these winged beauties for a million different and personal reasons. But it all boils down to the love of a challenge and the persistence to see things through. Whether it’s to finally conquer your “nemesis bird”, get your 400th state species, or figure out what the heck is making that weird “cheepy-urp!” call in your backyard, it takes dedication and love of the challenge to continue birding.
To that end, we have long employed optics and field guides. Some of us march out with camera lenses that almost make astronomical observatories feel inadequate. Audio recordings are nothing new to the study of birds, but with the relatively recent advent of smartphones and birding apps, almost anyone can walk into a yard, park, or forest and play a high-fidelity bird call or song. Be it alarm or predator calls, we are increasingly using these methods to at least get birds to come closer to look, or to pop out of that darn bush for half a second, PLEEEASE?! There’s much debate over the effects these recordings have on birds, and that’s a debate well worth having.
But one other audio aid birders have used far longer than iBird or Sibley or even YouTube streams is the simple “pish.”
Pishing is both a tool and an art form. Combining percussive “puh” and harsh “shushing” noises in quick succession, the sound is thought to create an alarm response in birds, especially the smaller passerines (though I’ve had crows come investigate on occasion). Sometimes I think they just come to laugh at someone in a big hat and cargo shorts spraying spittle all over his t-shirt. Some birders seem to get almost immediate responses to their pishes. Others’ attempts can grate on your nerves and you wonder what the big deal is, as you consider another reason to carry an umbrella along.
Sadly, I feel my pishes fall into the latter, soggy category. And I rarely have any success with my pishes, no matter how I alter the sound. Besides the aforementioned crows, I think I may have called up 2 Pine Warblers and one tired flock of late-winter Yellow-rumped Warblers since I started pishing 3 years ago. Before then, I was alway embarrassed to try it. If I was out by myself, it was almost like talking to myself. I guess when I finally realized I was often talking to myself, pishing didn’t seem such a long reach.
I suppose just like any other birding tool, and particularly audio recordings, pishing isn’t too invasive or troublesome when used judiciously. Pestering birds during critical times, like nesting or rearing young might be a bit much, but in general any amount of action you’re likely to raise isn’t much above the noise level for a bird that may have traversed 3500 kilometers, 10 interstates, a wind farm, a sports stadium, and predators – natural and unnatural – to get to your favorite patch of woods. But it’s probably best to be safe. Maybe your pish will be the proverbial (and salivary) straw that breaks the camel’s back. And in popular spots or during birding festivals, it might just about wear the birds out to hear hundreds of hiking boots, dozens of pishes and the actual and virtual shutter-clicks of a hundred cameras for a week straight.
In short, pish wisely my friend, and if you’re on the low end of the pishing mojo scale, like I am, maybe leave it alone. Your fellow birders will be happier – and drier – for it.