Bird Bits: 'Pish, pish, pish ...'

Start them young when it comes to enjoying the outdoors

At 11 months, Nick “bird walks” with his mom, Amy Clarke Courtney. Courney has a great ear for bird songs and calls.


With trees in leaf, locating a bird by ear can be more effective than by sight. Ears might lead birders to a glimpse of a chestnut-backed chickadee, for instance, going about its birdy business.

Birders make a sound called pishing, “pish, pish, pish”, in an attempt to draw the attention of birds. Little Nick Courtney can “pish” with the best of them.

Our year round residents, the chestnut-backed chickadees, are hard at work feeding five to 10 yawning beaks. Song birds, like the chickadee, have altricial offspring, which means they are born needing care and attention to flourish. The babies squirm naked from their shells, secure in a hidey hole with parents to feed and care for them for several weeks. On the hatchlings’ bodies are pricks or downy hints of the location of tracts where feathers will grow.

Nope, feathers don’t grow evenly over a bird’s body. Layers of feathers do the job.

Chickadees are cavity nesters. I observed a pair making improvements on an existing hole in an old tree. The clever little survivalists didn’t drop the scrapings at the foot of the tree. Instead, they flew down the trail with mouthfuls to spread widely.

These little birds, only about five inches tall, have conical bills to pick and pound a variety of foods. Special leg muscles allow the chickadees to be acrobatic feeders and they frequently cache food. As a family, they look alike and stick together.

Want to locate them? Listen for their call, rather than song, “chickadee-dee”. An increase of “dee” notes signifies their alarm.

These days, the Community Garden, off Montana Creek Road, is being harvested for its “bug” crop by swallows, red-breasted sapsuckers, orange-crowned warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, townsend warblers, pacific wrens, flycatchers, red-winged blackbirds and others.

If you don’t already have one, I recommend getting a bird guide, a bird app for a phone or iPad, or someone with ears tuned to high pitched sounds and take a bird walk.

Meanwhile, Nick Courtney can teach you to pish.

• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at


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