Geysers Pipeline Threatens Sanctuary
Squeaking, Pishing and Other Gross Noises Made By Birders
by Betty Burridge
While silence is usually appreciated any time more than one person is looking for birds, experienced birders sometimes use very strange noises to help to attract our feathered friends. First-timers may be puzzled, and even embarrassed, by some of these. But what price success in pursuit of a bird.
Field trip leaders have been known to begin kissing the back of one hand (in this case their own) in a loud and somewhat moist manner. The resulting squeaking sound has indeed proven to be irresistible to some small birds, in my experience, and out they would hop into full view.
This squeaking may have originated as an attempt to imitate the noises made by the tiny cylindrical bird attractors that many beginning birders receive from well-meaning relatives. A smooth piece of metal is turned and rubs against a wooden core, resulting in a high-pitched squeal. I suppose my musicality has yet to surface, for never have I been able to imitate a bird call with one of these objects. Nor have I ever enticed a bird into view. But I'm open to hearing about the experiences of others.
Now, as for "pishing," sometimes spelled "spishing," the first thing to know is to position yourself at least to the side of, or more safely, behind the birder who is attempting to attract birds with such noises. Somehow, the looser and wetter the lips and tongue of the "pisher," the more enticing the sound to small birds. It is said by some that this noise imitates a mobbing call that small birds use to identify the location of an unwanted intruder (owl or jay or whatever). Frankly, I have never heard birds in the wild make such noises, yet many times I have observed an expert "pisher" (yes, there definitely is skill involved) attract a large variety of birds. Interestingly, "pishing" does not work on birds in Great Britain and Europe, or in Mexico and Central America. I have no answer to that one.
One tried and true way to attract birds is to imitate their calls. No group of birds is more susceptible to this method than the owls. Each species has distinctive hoots, whistles, whines, squeaks and/or barks. Most owl species have several different vocalizations indicating, among other things, gender or location of family members. Commonly, a very good 'owler' will set up a dialog with an owl, following the progress of the bird as it approaches the imitator. Since most owls are active only in darkness, getting them to respond vocally and to fly closer greatly enhances the accuracy and enjoyment of any study or field trip. To say that perfecting owl calls is a skill is a gross understatement.
Other birds also respond to imitations of their own calls. It is said, although I never saw him do this, that the late Gordon Bolander, a wonderfully talented Sonoma County master birder, could call a White-tailed Kite down out of the sky.
Owl calls can also be used to attract small birds, which gather to investigate the potential predator. The monotone hollow whistle of the Pygmy Owl, given once every two seconds or so, can bring in a whole flock of birds. In nature, it is possible to locate an owl by zeroing in on an agitated group of birds in one tree. So in this case, the mobbing effect works. Again, whistling skills are the key.
With all of these means of attracting birds (and especially when using commercially available tape recordings of bird songs) care must be taken not to unnecessarily agitate the birds, especially when they are under the stress of extreme weather or during the breeding season. Owls fly toward owl calls to defend their territory. If it is you calling, you have caused an unnecessary flight and disturbed whatever activity the owl was engaged in. If you got him in the middle of a nap, you have contributed to sleep deprivation in that bird. If he was guarding chicks in the nest, a predator may have had a chance at the young while he investigated you.
We must balance our desire to lure these birds into sight to learn more about them, with our responsibility to respect their needs for survival. Moderation in all things, my grandmother said. Educate yourself, and learn to protect our feathered friends. Perhaps I should say, "Give a 'hoot,' but only one, please."