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Bird of a Feather Flock Together


All of the competitors gather onstage for the 45th annual Piedmont Bird Calling Contest held at a California high school.

All of the competitors gather onstage for the 45th annual Piedmont Bird Calling Contest held at a California high school.

Bird-calling competition brings fame to California high school

Birds of a feather flocked together for the 45th annual Piedmont Bird Calling Contest.

Piedmont High students Austin Kelley and Malaya Ibabao practiced the call of the common barn owl.

"Well, the competition is pretty fierce, I gotta say," says Kelley. "Last year, we had five teams, but this year, it's like 10. I hope we can at least place."

Piedmont High has a reputation for high academic achievement in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's one of California's top 10 high schools and places among the top 100 high schools in the country. However, outside of the Bay Area, Piedmont High is probably best known for its annual bird calling competition. Piedmont High student Malaya Ibabao performs as a common barn owl.

Piedmont High student Malaya Ibabao performs as a common barn owl.

"In many ways, it is a defining aspect of our community," says Piedmont High principal Randall Booker, who says the bird calling competition is well known in countries as far away as France. "So it definitely gives us a landmark, or an identity. I don't know if it's the best identity at times, but an identity for the community nevertheless. And it serves as showing another side to our students, that maybe the rest of the country doesn't see."

The Piedmont Bird Calling Contest was started in the 1960's by biology teacher Leonard Waxdeck.

Back then, the competition was a more genteel affair. Students wore tuxedoes and evening gowns while performing their bird calls.

Now, the performances include comical skits and musical numbers. Teams of two or three students may choose any bird they find interesting. They are judged by a panel of teachers and experts on their performance and how authentic their bird calls sound.

Social science teacher Ken Brown is this year's coordinator. He says although it may appear silly and wacky to outsiders, the contest has its serious side. First place winners Zach Piser, Andrew Moorhead and Emma Nicholls performed the call of the crow-like Irish Red-Billed Chough.

First place winners Zach Piser, Andrew Moorhead and Emma Nicholls performed the call of the crow-like Irish Red-Billed Chough.

"In addition to identifying the bird's call, they have to identify the bird's origins, some different, unique characteristics and traits about the bird, the bird's diet, the Latin name of the bird," says Brown. "So they have to thoroughly know their bird. They have to know their bird well before we allow them to participate. It absolutely is educational."

Students Angelica Kong, Devyn Duffy and Tom-Erik Haugen performed the call of the tundra swan.

"I think this shows how we truly are," says Devyn. "The rest of the Bay Area thinks we're all just bookworms. But we're all just crazy."

Angelica agrees. "I just thought it would be good to make some high school memories. It's like a tradition at our school, so I figured might as well participate in it while we're here."

The top three teams win an all expenses-paid trip to New York and the chance to perform their bird calls on "The Late Show with David Letterman," in front of a national television audience of millions.

"Well, I did it to embarrass myself, because I thought it'd be fun," says Tom-Erik. "We're pretty sure that we aren't going to win."

His team didn't take first place, that went to a team that performed the call of the crow-like Irish Red-Billed Chough.

But the judges' heeded the call of the Tundra Swans, finding them convincing enough to place second in the competition.

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