I was skeptical when a birding friend said he could
call birds in from the forest. “What are
you talking about?” I told him. Birds are shy. If there is one thing I know, they don’t come
when they’re called.
With a smile on his face and a glint his eye, he said
“I’ll show you.”
We stood under the canopy of oaks and maples, when he tilted his head upwards and let go with the strangest of sounds. By pursing his lips, he uttered a stream of loud “pssshhhing” noises. He repeated each phrase a few times a second (pish, pish, pish), emphasizing the P and the “ish” parts. I looked at him quizzically. Then he began to kiss the backs of his two fingers. What the heck? Then he told me to stand still. So I did.
It was then that the birds began to arrive. First Black- Capped Chickadees fitted in,
soon followed by White and Red Breasted Nuthatches. There were warblers, woodpeckers and even
other birds swooped by to check us out.
By the time a few minutes passed, we had over sixty birds near us. Some of the chickadees were only a few feet
away! How did my friend do this?
He used the secret weapon known to birders as “pishing.”
It works especially well with small songbirds. Pishing simply involves taking a deep breath and quickly repeating the sound “pssh” as you let the air out in one, drawn-out exhale. At first, you’ll probably have to pish fairly loudly – but you can lower the volume once the bird or birds get closer.
Continue pishing for at least a couple of minutes to
give all of the different species that may be present a chance to make their
way towards you. You can also kiss the back of your hand or fingers, creating
squealing noises. Chickadees and
nuthatches are especially receptive to both of these sounds, but other species
will almost always show up as well, especially if you are patient.
Don’t be surprised if you end up with birds practically at arm’s reach. It is believed that birds respond to pishing because it sounds similar to the scold calls of chickadees. Scold calls are used when there is a potential threat in the area such as an owl. Other chickadees, along with birds of other species, are attracted by these sounds because they are curious about the nature of the potential threat.
In all seasons and especially during the fall, you can pish birds in. Practice becoming a bird whisperer and who knows what birds may be conjured up by your pursed lips and your strange sounds! Try it and see.
Jacob Rodenburg is currently the Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, a summer camp and outdoor education centre. He teaches part time at Trent University in environmental education. Jacob co-authored an award winning book called “The Big Book of Nature Activities” with naturalist Drew Monkman.