CormoRANT: 04-28-2017: Gone Pishing…

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 always 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.

CormoRANT: 02-13-2017: Stuperstition

[Welcome back to the CormoRANT. I know it’s been a while, but here’s another in my series of opinion pieces regarding birds, conservation, and probably politics!]

Humanity is a superstitious lot. Our ability to piece together scant information and form a pattern in our minds was probably instrumental in our evolutionary success. But in the modern world we have never fully shaken these ideas. Broken mirrors. Opening umbrellas indoors. Walking under a ladder. Knocking on wood. You know these, and probably countless others.

It’s no surprise that birds have also figured into human superstition for ages. For example, albatrosses are seagoing birds (sometimes called pelagic) that can spend months at a time in the air, only landing to breed, nest, or feed their young. Centuries ago, sailors saw the albatross as a good omen, and if it was killed, you were doomed to be lost at sea or worse.

In Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the story takes a truly supernatural turn, and the mariner’s life is only saved when he blesses all creatures after a harrowing ordeal, atoning for his killing of the bird.

It probably makes sense that the albatross was seen as bringing good luck. If one was flying behind a ship, it likely meant favorable weather. If it was a fishing boat, the birds were probably attracted to other birds that were feasting on the by-catch. This would associate the birds with good fishing.

On the other hand, consider the much-maligned cormorant.


The word “cormorant” loosely translates to “sea crow”. Large, mainly black birds, these master divers and fishing birds have a long history of superstition. They have been associated with oncoming storms and great evil. The root of distrust and hate for this birds has a more practical source: perceived competition. According to Dr. Tom Kazo, Ph.D. and Donna McVicar Kazo:

“The gluttonous behavior patterns of the cormorant, combined with its devilish appearance and almost supernatural fishing abilities, have for centuries caused superstitious fears and enmity in the hearts of fishermen.”

For years there has been an ongoing war between the cormorant and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last year tens of thousands of Double Crested Cormorants were killed, and thousands of nests ruined, to cut the population down.

The problem, according to the Corps (and, more importantly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is that the birds were eating a huge number of young salmon and trout as they made their way downstream from hatcheries.

Never mind the fact that the reason for the massive decline in wild salmon and steelhead is due to the damming of western rivers, particularly in the Columbia River watershed. Responsible conservation will require that the hydroelectric system be reviewed and in some cases, certain dams be decommissioned. Non-lethal methods for dealing with the cormorants were not adequately considered.

Here are some links to articles dealing with last year’s cormorant slaughter. When or how often this type of “management” strategy gets used in the future depends on pubic input and sound science.…blood_b_6964178.html

The irony of this is that the consideration and eventual decision to slaughter tens of thousands of birds lay with the nominally pro-environment/conservation Obama Administration. With the current anti-science, anti-conservation, and pro-development attitude of the current occupiers of the Executive Office, who knows what horrors await.

It is interesting that prior to the perceived problem with the cormorants, another opportunistic species was taking advantage of the artificially constructed concentration of young fish along the same stretch of river: the more socially accepted Royal Tern.


Terns are elegant birds; they are the more graceful and buoyant relatives of gulls. The terns were afforded the consideration of non-lethal methods, and plans were enacted that forced the birds to relocate and refocus their attention to smaller, less commercially valuable fish. I’m sure the cormorants are a “harder nut to crack” in this regard, but given the root cause of the problem (i.e., us) and the greater environmental stakes, we owe it to these birds, and all other species, to think and act compassionately and peacefully.



CormoRANT: 5-27-2016: The Unbearable Whiteness of Birding

In the United States, one aspect about birding that has stood out to me is how “white” it is. There have been a number of papers and articles about this, with varying degrees of acceptance or scorn, and I don’t aim to have a solution here (this is a RANT after all), but consider the following two pieces on the subject. One is a USDA Forest Service Technical Report from 2005 and the other is a 2014 article from National Geographic. I heartily recommend reading both pieces.

Not what I meant.

In the Forest Service report, author John Robinson sent out questionnaires to  birders and African Americans to gauge how each group perceived birding and the diversity of its participants. In his conclusion, Robinson brings up an interesting point. He says that one way to respond to the dearth of African Americans (and indeed, other minorities) is by saying, “What’s the point?” That is, every individual is free to choose to bird or not. I like to call this the “Libertarian Argument.” Minorities are not birding, says this line of thinking, because they freely choose not to. Surely if someone wanted to bird badly enough, the resources exist to do so.

The Libertarian Argument, of course, fails to address any systemic barriers to certain populations, or of larger cultural attitudes. Robinson says that on reason for a lack of interest in birding among African Americans is part of larger tendency for that group to be less involved in other nature-related activities. The reasons for this are multiple. One reason is that many core African American populations tending to be more urban and historically having less access to green spaces. Another reason is what Robinson describes as a “Don’t Loop”. He says of birders, “many of these individuals most likely got started in birding as a result of having been introduced to it by someone else.” If someone never gets a chance to meet or interact with a birder, then they cannot pass the activity on to others, thus perpetuating the cycle.

In the eleven or so years since the paper was published, there has been little change in African Americans’ participation in birding.

Robinson’s paper is focused on self-identifying African American birders, though he does mention the overall concern with the lack of other minority groups. It doesn’t take much looking around in most field trip buses to extrapolate these trends to other demographics.

The 2014 National Geographic article, by Martha Hamilton, delves a little more into why diversity in birding (indeed, in any activity) is desirable, and how some organizations are tackling the issue.

This includes outreach programs that send birders (and other environmentalists) to schools and organizations, particularly dealing with kids, to get them interested and excited. But some organizations are realizing the need to attract adults, too. It’s very hard to convince someone that any aspect of the environment needs attention or “saving” if they aren’t somehow invested in it themselves. Teaching adults to connect the dots and see how their actions are related to their environment is key. Birds are a visible and accessible way to do that.

The author also brings to light the potentially hidden attitudes certain groups or clubs have toward “other” groups, without necessarily thinking much of it. It will take an explicit and dedicated outreach effort to pull diverse people into these groups, which will have to first identify and then challenge their own inherent biases. My own birding experience, for example, has been seriously lacking in diversity. I’ve had to decide how important that is to me.

What do you think? Is there a racial bias in birding? If so, is it something we should worry about? How would you address the problem, if you see one?


CormoRANT 4-18-2016: Take out the Trash!

Welcome to the first edition of what I hope will be a quasi-regular feature called the CormoRANT. These will be posts that focus on something about birding, nature, people or environmental issues that I have something to SAY about!

In this edition, I’ll be talking about something in birding terminology many of us birders have heard many times. Some of you might use this term without much thought. And that’s where I have something to say.

Trash birds. No, not the gulls or shorebirds at your local landfill (although some of those COULD be considered “trash” birds by some). Trash birds are bird species that are either common or so easily seen that they are almost a bother to even note in our checklists. For large swaths of the US, a typical trash bird would be an American Robin, or Northern Cardinal.

I’ve heard accomplished birders call Blue-gray Gnatcatchers “Blue-gray Time-wasters” or worse.


I understand. When you’re traipsing through the woods looking for a Golden-winged Warbler or sweating it out hoping the Cuban Pewee you saw on eBird is still there, having your attention drawn away by such common fluff as Blue Jays or Northern Mockingbirds can be annoying. I myself have had a love-hate relationship with the cardinals that occasionally drown out other bird calls in my favorite hotspots.

But I subscribe to the belief that words mean things. They have power. They shape how we think and how we act. When you call a bird “trash” you are devaluing it based on your own subjective idea of which birds are important and which are not. Because an American Robin is easily seen, is it less beautiful? Less important? How less impressive, really, is the red of a male Northern Cardinal to that of a male Summer Tanager?


Wild things have an intrinsic value, independent of how we label them. The values we ascribe to them matter only in as much as we seek to mold our worlds to our needs and wants. We all do it. But the next time you find yourself sighing that the leaf-scrabbling bird you got on your knees to see is only a Gray Catbird and not the Swainson’s Warbler you thought, remember to check your perspective and appreciate the bird you have in front of you.