Attract Birds in the Field

Black-Capped Chickadee
Curious chickadees will respond to pishing. Photo © Matt MacGillivray/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Pishing is a technique birders use in the field to attract small birds in order to get a better view to identify them. By understanding what pishing is and how and when to use it, birders can greatly increase their field birding success. Be careful, however, because this technique is not always welcome or appropriate.

About Pishing

Making any small, repetitive noise in an effort to attract birds can be considered a type of pishing. While these noises are obviously not bird sounds, there are several theories as to why birds will respond. The raspy, rough quality of a pish is similar to alarm or scolding calls from many small birds. Those birds are accustomed to mobbing together to chase away larger predators; therefore, the pishing attracts a flock of small birds ready to chase an intruder. Another theory is that some higher pitched or sharper pishes may resemble insect noises and thus attract feeding birds. Many birders also believe, after watching birds respond to their pishing, that some species of birds have a natural curiosity and playfulness and simply enjoy investigating unknown noises.

Whatever the real reason some birds respond to pishing, it is clear that this talkative technique can be an asset to birders who use it responsibly.

Birds That Respond to Pishing

Studies and bird reports have shown that some birds are more responsive to pishing than others. In general the technique is largely effective in North America and northern Europe but less effective in tropical habitats. This may be because of the different bird sounds species make in different regions of the world and pishing is only useful in areas where birds naturally make similar sounds.

Types of birds that frequently respond to pishing include:

  • Chickadees
  • Finches
  • Jays
  • Kinglets
  • Nuthatches
  • Sparrows
  • Titmice
  • Tits
  • Warblers
  • Wrens

Whether or not birds respond to pishing also depends on environmental conditions, including ambient noise levels caused by weather, bird song and nearby humans. Individual birds may also vary in their responses depending on how frequently they hear pishing.

How to Pish

Pishing is an easy technique to master and many birders have their own sounds that work best in the field. Different sounds can be effective, though most are made with the teeth together and repeated 3-5 times in a slow, regular tempo. Changing the tempo or adding additional sounds to each pish sequence can also entice birds to respond.

The most common pish syllables include:

  • Pish
  • Pssst
  • Sip
  • Seep

Kissing or lip smacking noises, tongue clicks and a rapid "chit-chit-chit" noise are pishing alternatives that can also get the attention of curious birds.

The volume of the pish should be kept at or slightly softer than a conversational tone. Birds have excellent hearing and very loud pishes are likely to chase birds away rather than attract them. Similarly, too much pishing can easily desensitize the birds to the noise and they will no longer respond.

To Pish or Not to Pish?

While pishing is a favorite technique of many birders who haven't mastered mimicking bird calls, whether or not repetitive pishing is appropriate is hotly debated. Excessive pishing may disturb birds, drawing them away from their natural activities such as caring for nestlings, foraging or preening, and can thus negatively impact their behavior and survival. Pishing while in a group of birders may disrupt the views other birders have of the same species, or it may startle and scare away birds unfamiliar with the noise. To pish appropriately…

  • Avoid pishing in sensitive areas, such as near nesting sites or when a rare bird has been sighted. If recordings of bird calls are prohibited in an area, pishing may also be inappropriate.
  • Only pish until you have a view of the responsive bird, then cease any unnecessary noise and allow the bird to return to its natural activities.
  • Keep pishing to a minimum when birding in a group, since not all birders agree with the practice, unless the group agrees that some pishing is acceptable.
  • Do not pish during official bird counts or surveys unless the technique is approved for the event, since excessive pishing could create falsely inflated counts or records.

Pishing is a quick, easy technique to learn that can help both new and experienced birders get better views of birds in the field. While pishing isn't always appropriate, knowing how to pish and when to use it can help birders interact with wild birds in a fun and rewarding way.