Birdwatching is not one of my usual pastimes, but I joined some friends the other day for an expedition to the Houston Audubon Society’s bird sanctuary at High Island on Bolivar Peninsula to take a gander at blue herons, snowy egrets, and roseate spoonbills (but no ganders). At the entrance to the sanctuary is a sign enumerating its rules and regulations, among which is the stern admonition: NO PISHING.
“Pishing” must be a typographical error, I assumed, either with a “P” mistakenly substituted for an “F,” or with an “H” in place of a second “S.” Either of these I thought would make sense as a reasonable prohibition. A third, but remote, possibility was that an “H” had been omitted after the “P,” and this was a warning not to try to electronically extract personal information from your fellow birdwatchers; that injunction, however, struck me as unlikely in a wildlife thicket.
It turns out that PISHING is not a typographical error, and it means just what it says. To pish is to imitate the sound of a songbird in order to lure it into the open. It is a technique of scientists doing avian surveys and of many birders to attract species that are difficult to find. Pishing is controversial, with some experts maintaining that it unethically disrupts the natural life of the birds, and others claiming it disturbs them no more than silently traipsing through their habitats. The Audubon Society seems to have decided that pishing is harmful, and therefore it is banned.
The etymology of pish is apparently simply an echo of the sound made by the most elementary type of bird luring—the unvoiced repetition of the syllable pish, pish, pish. This is a sound that is similar to “sshh,” used to quiet someone, and it will often lure birds to investigate what is going on.
An allied practice known as “squeaking” is noisily kissing the back of one’s hand, which mimics the sound of a bird scolding a predator.
The word pish is also an exclamation of contempt, dating to the 1590s, and is often found in combination forms such as “pish-tosh” or “pish-posh.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks his work is for the ages, but most people think it’s for the birds.
I write the poems that make the grown men cry.
Oh, how I labor over every word!
My deepest thoughts take wing and soar, they fly!
Then one of my readers flips me the bird.