There’s a certain art to making sounds to attract birds. Persuading birds to pull themselves out of deep cover and show themselves to you using nothing but the power of your own vocal cords is no easy feat, and those who can successfully pull off “pishing,” as such coaxing is known, are kings of the woods. I’ve had big flocks of Pine Siskins completely surround me. I’ve had warblers bounce around my feet. I’ve pished into a silent copse and summoned bird life like some kind of avian Aquaman. When pishing works, oh man, you’re on top of the world.
But when pishing doesn’t work, oh boy, you feel like a dope. When it doesn’t work you’re just a weirdo standing next to an empty bush making funny mouth noises.
Still, you need to learn.
Let’s start by talking about the different noises birds make. Of course, birds sing. Go outside right now, in the spring, and you’ll hear birds at peak song. Only male birds sing, for the most part, as they’re trying to attract mates and define and defend their territory against rivals. Once nesting is complete and the birds don’t need to attract anyone anymore or defend a territory, they’ll stop singing. Ever notice how much quieter birds are in fall? It’s because they don’t need to sing anymore.
But they do need to make other noises. When pairs or groups of birds are foraging together they’ll often make “contact calls”—quick cheeps or chirps—to keep track of each other. Many birds have short notes that they’ll only give in flight, aptly named “flight calls.” Really good birders can identify species based solely on their short flight-call notes.
In some circumstances, birds also make noises of alarm. Birds always need to be alert for predators like hawks or owls, and when one of those threats is detected, birds raise the alarm by making a lot of noise. The idea is to take away the predator’s element of surprise: By making a bunch of noise and constantly watching and mobbing, the prey lets the predator know it’s been seen. These kinds of calls don’t sound like other bird sounds—they’re harsher. Oftentimes referred to as “scolds,” these calls embody the hostility of a bird that was until a second ago about to be somebody’s lunch.
This is where pishing comes in. Scolds are recognizable across species, meaning that when one bird starts making these noises other birds will come out from where they’re hiding to see what the fuss is about. Birders, then, have learned to draw birds out into view by imitating bird scold noises.
We call it “pishing” because basically, you just go: “Pish! Pish!” Honestly. The standard pish is drawn out a bit, like a “no-talking-in-the-library” -style “shhhh,” but with a “p” on the front. Psshhhh! Psshhh! Pssshh! It’s hard to get across on the page, but here are some videos of pishing in action so you can hear what it sounds like.
You can tell your pishing is working when you see, or hear, birds react. It’ll be obvious. Birds that were at one moment sulking in the underbrush will pop out into the open, and maybe even fly in close to you, to try to get a glimpse of the phantom predator. They’ll be looking intently for something, and likely making scold noises of their own. For once in your whole birding life, the birds will be easy to see.
It doesn’t work on all birds. Pishing is mostly successful for finding small songbirds in the woods or other greenery. Try it with hard-to-see birds like warblers, wrens, sparrows, kinglets, nuthatches, birds like that. Do not try to pish in a gull or an eagle. They don’t use the same kinds of alert noises that songbirds do, and you’ll feel silly standing there in some parking lot while gulls completely ignore your hissing mouth sounds. Trust me.
Because pishing is an art, everyone’s got their own style. I have three different pishes that I use, often together. I’ll do a standard “Psssshh! Pssshh!” and also mix in a few, doubled “Chit! Chit!” calls. Sometimes, when I’m feeling saucy, I’ll throw a bunch of “chits” together like a little angry bird machine gun: “Chit chit chit chit chit chit chit chit!”
Other birders have their own combinations, with varying intensity and speed. Some birders make little kissy noises by, like, sucking on the back of their hand. The vocally dexterous among us can imitate the warbling trill of a screech-owl, which can send flocks of songbirds into hysterics.
Actually, that hysterics piece is important. When pishing works, you are changing the behavior of the wild bird, literally tricking it into doing something it wouldn’t do otherwise. Now, pishing is a widely accepted practice, and not nearly as potentially harmful to a bird as, say, playing a recording of another male’s song on a wild bird’s territory. But pishing should be used carefully. A good rule of thumb is to only use it until you can identify the bird, then stop.
Of course, that’s assuming you can get birds to respond in the first place. The majority of the time I try to pish out a bird I get no response. It never works, for example, when I’m leading a bird walk and have a bunch of people I’m trying to impress with my vocal magic. I’m never sure why... Either the birds can see through my ruse, or they’re just not interested in seeing what’s going on.
But, like I said, when it does work, pishing makes you feel like Dr. Doolittle. So go ahead give it a try, but maybe just start when there are no other people around.