A small group of biology teachers walked along a trail at the Juniata College Field Station at Lake Raystown — looking for birds.
We had heard a number of bird calls and identified three common species by sight when our guide, Chuck Yohn announced, “Stop here, this is a good location for pishing.”
What is he talking about ?, we wondered. As the group stood motionless, Yohn started making a weird hissing sound with his mouth — ‘psssh, psssh, psssh.’ He instructed us to imitate that sound, and we did.
‘Psssh, psssh, psssh’ — 15 teachers all making or attempting to make pishing sounds — I imagine that it was quite a sight and quite a sound.
Much to my surprise, but not Yohn’s, a curious warbler landed in a nearby shrub, only 10 feet away. Soon it was joined by an Eastern towhee and a catbird — all attracted by the pishing sounds. More birds were “pished” in later that morning, and I was thoroughly convinced that this was an effective way to lure birds into close range for better viewing or identification.
My introduction to pishing occurred nearly 20 years ago, and since then, I have “pished in” a lot of songbirds. The technique definitely works. Three years ago, I bought “The Art of Pishing,” by Pete Dunne. The 92-page paperback, which comes with an audio CD, clearly explains the art of pishing and describes Dunne’s experiences using this birders’ technique.
When did birders start “pishing?”
While taking a graduate ornithology course at Indiana University of Pennsylvania during the summer of 1975, I learned how birds reacted to the recorded territorial calls of males of the same species. I am pretty sure that my instructor did not know about pishing then, or we would have used it during our field studies of the prairie warbler.
Oddly enough, it was that same year — 1975 — that Dunne was first introduced to pishing while he was birding in New Jersey. According to Dunne, there are no records indicating exactly when or where pishing began. In his book, he notes that “hunters, including Native American hunters, have used bird calls to lure birds for centuries — the most obvious of which are duck, goose and turkey calls.” Dunne speculates that pishing was most likely first used for hunting purposes a long time ago.
“However the technique was developed, one thing is certain. At times, and in the hands of someone who knows how to use it, pishing can work like magic,” Dunne wrote.
According to Dunne, pishing most closely imitates the sounds made by an excited chickadee or titmouse, and I would agree. After listening to Dunne’s CD — he really sounds like a scolding titmouse — I refined my pishing to sound more like his.
No one knows why birds respond to a pish, but Dunne hypothesizes that it is out of curiosity or boredom, as much as anything else. Birds just want to see what all of the commotion is about.
Pishing works best in forested areas with understory trees and shrubs, in shrubby areas, or at forest edges. Bald Eagle State Park has much shrubby habitat — perfect for pishing.
Stand motionless (camouflage or brown and/or green clothing helps, but it is not necessary) and start making a “pishing” noise with your mouth. Psssh, psssh, psssh — repeat and add a little variety by shortening or lengthening the sounds. Add excitement to your voice. Remember, you are imitating an irritated titmouse. You might get a more realistic sound and add variety if you drop the “h” from the end of some pishes or add a “ch” sound.
I often ‘pish’ while I am trout fishing. I will see a movement in a bush and just start pishing. More often than not, curiosity will get the best of the bird and it will reveal itself. A few seconds later, there might be three of four birds flitting across the stream to see what all of the commotion is about.
Not all species respond to even the most enthusiastic pish. Catbirds, titmice, chickadees, song sparrows, eastern towhees, wrens, kinglets and indigo buntings are usually easy to pish. The yellowthroat and redstart, both small warblers, are suckers for a good pish. I have had them fly within three feet of my face looking for the source of the pishing sound. Almost any warbler will be attracted to pishing. This includes the yellow, black-throated blue, black-throated green, black and white, and blackburnian warblers, among others.
I have also experienced some real surprises. Once I took up a pishing station not too far from a calling ovenbird and started to pish. Almost instantly, a bird responded, but not the ovenbird. I was startled when a sharp-shinned hawk flew right at me.
In addition to the usual cast of feathered friends, this spring I pished in cedar waxwings, an immature robin, a Louisiana waterthrush and even a pair of barn swallows. One never knows what birds will be attracted to the magic of pishing.
For Pennsylvania birds, Dunne gives his “most easily pished” award to chickadees and titmice. My more limited experience during the past 20 years would bestow this “award” on the catbird. I pish in catbird after catbird while I am fishing.
This truly works, but I suggest not testing your pishing skills in the presence of strangers. Someone might dial 911 and that could be embarrassing for all concerned.
Prowl the Sproul events planned
Once again, organizers have a full slate of Sproul State Forest guided hikes and other events scheduled for the annual Prowl the Sproul weekend on July 20- 22. The day hikes are jointly sponsored by the state forest and the Keystone Trails Association. The multi-day Donut Hole Trail Slackpack is the most challenging hike, but many shorter hikes are scheduled. A 10K race is also planned for July 21, sponsored by the PA Traildogs.
For more information, visit www.kta-hike.org and click on the menu on the right. Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the PA Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.