How the common loon beat the redwinged blackbird

Anyone strolling near the high school in Piedmont, Calif., on May 21 might have been surprised to hear the cry of a loon, the screech of an owl, and the song of a brown thrasher all apparently coming from the auditorium. No, the school doesn't maintain a bird sanctuary. The songs and calls issued from the lips and throats of students competing in the 17th Annual Leonard J. Waxdeck Bird Calling Contest.

First prize this year went to Abigail Heilig who imitated the common loon. First runners-up were Emily Schruhl (red-winged blackbird) and Alex Mayer (yellow-headed blackbird). Second prize was awarded to Julia Cochran for the great horned owl, and third to Shari Walker for the house finch.

What in the world is a bird-calling contest, and who ever thought it up? Leonard J. Waxdeck, head of the science department at Piedmont High School, told his students about listening to some of the workers at his factory whistling bird calls as they worked and, as a result, the first year eight students held their own contest.

From these modest beginnings, Mr. Waxdeck now puts on a very impressive contest each year with the assistance of two coaches, the Rev. Clifford W. Pratt of San Francisco, a professional whistler, and Dale Porter, who coaches nonwhistling bird calls. About 100 students tried out last fall and some 40 finalists were selected to perform. Students do research on the various birdS, and the calls are noted for their accuracy.

Mr. Waxdeck's production has grown into an event that receives national recognition. Recently Mr. Waxdeck and several of his contestants appeared on "The Johnny Carson Show." Taped film excerpts of the contest have been shown in Canada, Germany, Japan, Australia, and the People's Republic of China. Reporters and cameramen from major TV channels, radio stations, national news magazines, and newspapers covered the live performance.

As the Bird Calling Contest opened to a packed house, Mr. Waxdeck with tongue-in-cheek read polite letters of regret from prominent personalities unable to attend. These included a very formal reply from the British Embassy in Washington pleading a previous engagement for the Queen, and responses from the White House and California Governor Jerry Brown. These letters, along with photos and press releases, will go into the annual scrapbook participating students prepare at the end of each Bird Calling Contest.

Every year Mr. Waxdeck vows he will not stage another contest and every year he bows to popular demand.

"It gives the students an opportunity to extend the boundaries of textbook science instruction in a way that is education and yet fun," he says. "I think the experience of presenting their knowledge in a way that is theatrical and entertaining is both satisfying and useful to our students."

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