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Attracting birds into view by “spishing”

October 9, 2009

Naturalists are always trying to find ways to improve their chances of observing wildlife.  One of the most curious methods involves the use of what bird watchers call “spishing.”  To attract a bird into view, many of us make a sound something like this—“spish, pssish, pssish, pssish, pssish.”  To the astonishment of many who have tried it, nearby birds will often respond by jumping or flitting toward the sound-maker and onto a prominent, exposed perch!  What’s going on here?  Why would a bird do such a thing?

In all probability, birds are innately programmed to flit toward spishing-like sounds, and we humans have merely come upon a way to mimic the sound that causes birds to approach.  So what normally makes a noise like “pssish, pssish,” and why would natural selection have favored birds that move toward such a sound?

The answer can be found in the vocal repertoire of the birds themselves!  Most small birds make a sound much like “pssish, pssish, pssish” when they spot a small owl or hawk that is stationary or perched.  If they can attract enough help from other birds, they can actually dive bomb and harass the potential predator enough to drive it away!  Because each note in a spishing call is loud, has an abrupt beginning, and covers a broad frequency range, the source of such a sound can be readily pinpointed.  Thus, birds can immediately locate and fly toward the caller, and join in “mobbing” the predator to drive it away.

So, by spishing, we’re triggering a songbird’s programmed response to a noise that’s very similar to the sound produced by their own “mobbing” calls.  If used sparingly, one can “spish” to reap the benefit of a better look at some of the most colorful of our wildlife species—the songbirds.

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