Video: Bird-Call Competitors Show Off Their Best Quacks, Honks, and Gobbles

Every year young and old callers take to the stage to compete at the National Outdoor Show. Here they share the art of the perfect call.

Video: Greg Kahn

Every February the raucous sounds of ducks, geese, and turkeys fill the auditorium of the South Dorchester School in Church Creek, Maryland. The quacks and gobbles sound like the real thing, but there isn’t a live fowl in sight. The convincing imitations all emanate from humans taking part in bird-calling contests at the annual National Outdoor Show.

From kids who are just getting started to adults who have been competitively calling for decades, everyone vying for a trophy takes the sweet-talking seriously. They’ve spent countless pre-dawn mornings in the field, listening and watching in order to perfect their avian impressions. “The thing that makes someone great at calling ducks, geese, swans—whatever they’re calling—is reacting to what the birds are doing in the air,” one contestant told photographer Greg Kahn, who shot the video above at the 2016 contest.

“Right when you do [the call], you know if you’re right or wrong,” another contestant says. You either attract the birds you’re after, or you don’t.

Participants are divided into three categories (beginner, junior, and senior) and are further divvied up based on whether they employ a tool—such as a whistle, or a diaphragm that the caller inserts into his mouth—or simply use their mouth and hands to create compelling clucks and cackles. 

Whatever the approach, a caller’s heart has to be in it. Otherwise the birds—never mind the judges—can tell, says one of the youngest competitors. “It doesn’t sound like you’re one with the call.”