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How to be a Bird Pick-Up Artist

A chickadee, one of the types of songbirds most likely to respond to pishing. (Photo: Dawn/flickr)

Pete Dunne is pishing his life away. 

Dunne has been a birder since he was seven years old, when he discovered that the hobby provided a convenient escape from adults. Armed with binoculars, Dunne would regularly walk up to 15 miles from his childhood home in search of birds. Now Dunne is the birding ambassador of the New Jersey Audubon Society, the author of several books about birding, and on a mission to turn everyone he meets into a birder. He is also an expert in the craft of “pishing.”

How does one pish, and why? According to Dunne, pishing isn’t quite the same as bird-calling, which entails mimicking a specific bird. Pishing is a more general call that appeals mostly to small songbirds, especially titmice, bushtits and chickadees. “Pishing is a mechanism you use to attract birds that employs mimicking their scolding calls,” he says, with the goal of convincing the birds to embark on “a mobbing action.” This means, get the birds to surround a potential threat and start making a lot of noise at it.  

The difference between pishing and birdcalling might seem slight, until you hear them in action. Pishing’s moniker is a fairly apt onomatopoeia. 

Psssssh, pssssh, pssssh,” Dunne obligingly calls down the phone from his New Jersey office. It’s a rapid sound, a bit high-pitched. To a layperson it sounds like a mix between a sprinkler going off and a tire leaking. Dunne describes the sound as “your Aunt Mabel calling her cat”. (You can see a video of Dunne demonstrating his pishing techniques here.)

Pishing is especially useful in wooded areas, where birds are hidden by vegetation, luring them to where birders can get an identifying glance. It’s a way of calling in “the professionals,” says Dunne—once a few birds arrive, their real calls could easily attract more birds than a human pish. Dunne also has an additional theory about why pishing is effective.

The 151-acre wildlife sanctuary owned by the New Jersey Audubon Society, to which Pete Dunn is a birding ambassador. (Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/flickr)

“Personally I think it’s probably pretty boring be a bird,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and you’re hungry, so you eat. Okay, so that kills a couple of hours. And maybe you rearrange your feathers for a while and then you’ve got nothing to do all day unless it’s breeding season except try not to get eaten. And then suddenly there you are listening to some harangue going on not far away and you wonder what’s going down in the neighborhood, so you go to investigate.”

It’s an impulse humans can relate to, says Dunne. 

“We’re sitting at home, watching reruns of “I Dream of Jeannie” on TV and you suddenly hear your neighbors going at it across the fence; you go to the window you look out and see what’s going on.”

Wildlife at High Island, Texas, where pishing is discouraged so as to not disturb migratory birds. (Photo: Bill Staney/flickr

Pishing is a known practice in the birding community—you can find tutorials on YouTube and even the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends pishing for attracting warblers. But there are many birders who aren’t in the know or need an assist with technique, which has transformed Dunne into a pishing evangelist. Dunne teaches classes in pishing that sometimes attract up to 100 people, and has also written a guide called The Art of Pishing that comes with a CD of his calls. He isn’t sure what the origins of pishing are, but he learned the craft when he was 25 from his birding mentor, who was capable of bringing birds within arms length. Dunne says he, too, can achieve this.

There are other calls that Dunne mixes in with the typical “pish”. There’s a descending stutter that appeals to some species and sounds like “Schoo-schoo-schoo!”. Imitating a hawk or an owl screech—“Pheeoo-pheeoo-pheeoo—will also draw out scolding songbirds. “That seems to get birds really jazzed up,” says Dunne. He occasionally combines pishing with more unconventional methods, such as draping a rubber snake over a branch, around which birds will gather. “I don’t habitually carry a rubber snake in my pocket,” he says. “I just use it on occasion.”

He has also found that his calls sometimes attract other animals. Upon hearing a starling emit a squeal as it was carried off by a cooper’s hawk, he decided to imitate the call and see what happened. Birds came, but also, bobcats, coyotes and, once, a weasel that ran up his leg.

Two titmice on a branch. (Photo: Mike’s Birds/flickr)

In some ways, being able to summon birds at will is a superpower and like any great power, pishing comes with great responsibility. 

Once you’ve gotten your identifying look, curtail the calls. Don’t pish when birds should be foraging and feeding or when you know there are predators around that might capture them, or during breeding season. Some places, such as High Island, Texas, post signs discouraging pishing, so that exhausted migratory birds aren’t disturbed by people making a ruckus. This is a policy that Dunne absolutely respects. There’s also an etiquette about it—if there are other birders around, Dunne asks permission before pishing.

“One of the reasons I go birding, frankly, is to enjoy the ambiance,” says Dunne. “And a bunch of people all wheezing and ssshing like perforated steam pipes doesn’t add to the ambiance.”