Something to Crow About

Piedmont High’s bird call competition turns 50.

Last Friday night students at Piedmont High School in California gathered in an auditorium, sporting paper beaks, Pilgrim outfits, and turkey costumes. To a sold-out audience, they gobbled and squawked and chirped for a panel of judges. No, this wasn’t an out-of-season Thanksgiving pageant. It was the school’s 50th (nearly) annual birdcall competition.

Late science teacher Leonard J. Waxdeck started the competition in 1963, the story goes, after a student asked if Waxdeck could do something to “liven things up around here.” The contest soon received national attention, the winners appearing for 17 years in a row on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Once Carson retired, they made the move to Late Night with David Letterman, where they appeared last night, April 21.

Each call is presented as part of a short sketch, in which students recount a sighting of the bird, or pretend that they themselves are birds. Students perform in pairs or trios, and are judged on the authenticity of the call, as well as poise and humor. “The beauty and singularity of the birdcall are essential,” says the school’s website.

This year the teens did their best impressions of everything from the Sandhill Crane to the Red-shouldered Hawk to Wild Turkeys, Mourning Doves, and Greater Prairie-Chickens, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Tickets to the event sold out the day they went on sale, with seats going for up to $30 a pop.

The event is so popular that it’s turned current science teacher and competition leader Ken Brown into something of a minor celebrity. “I get stopped all the time when people find out that I teach at Piedmont High School,” Brown told the local ABC affiliate station. “ ‘You’re the bird calling school, right?’ We’re known across the nation.”

This year’s winners, Mare Sotkiewicz and Tyler Ellis, triumphed with their impression of the Pacific Loon—and their whimsical imagining of its behavior. “Their skit reflected a pregnant female and a male, who didn’t seem to know she was pregnant, hitting on her,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Here are the winners demonstrating their stuff on Letterman last night:

Second-place winners Amy Kelleher, Becca Havian, and Jo Ireland won last year for their Gyrfalcon call. Here they are on Letterman demonstrating this year's inspired performance of the Wild Turkey:

Third-place winner Joseph Chan mimicked the Pyrrhuloxia, a member of the cardinal family. Chan’s father also went to Piedmont High, and did the same call 30 years before.

So what does a retro bird tune sound like? Here’s a look at the sharply dressed Piedmont High bird-callers of the ’80s, singing their tunes on national TV: