The greater prairie chicken is a large bird in the grouse family. During mating season, males attract females by inflating air sacs on the sides of their necks and snapping their tails on the ground. Found in the American Midwest, the bird prefers open prairie land.
It is not native to Piedmont.
But imitating the bird's whooping, chortling love call was just the ticket for Piedmont High School students Cameron Anderson, Tialli Moya-Smith and Sheli Schacker to win the school's 47th Annual Bird Calling Contest on May 4.
The contest is a beloved Piedmont High tradition that gains notoriety each year when the top three finishing groups perform their calls on "Late Night with David Letterman" in New York. In past years, the winners performed on NBC's "The Tonight Show" hosted by the late Johnny Carson.
Seven individuals and teams took part in this year's event with judging by Piedmont educators and parents. Along with imitating the bird's sounds, the students researched information about the animals and performed skits that incorporated a story into the calling and squawking.
Anderson, Moya-Smith and Schacker staged a "Dating Game"-type scenario for their bird's mating call. The students chose the prairie chicken after an intensive search for the appropriate bird to imitate.
"We had a lot of fun trying to find a complex call," Anderson said.
"It was really fun trying to find things on the Internet that would work for us.
Moya-Smith appeared on Letterman's show with a winning team last year. She was the object of some good-natured ribbing by Letterman when Moya-Smith revealed that she would have jaw surgery that summer. The surgery was successful as evidenced by Moya-Smith's broad smile at the thought of returning to the show.
"It's going to be a pleasure," she said, "I got the jaw surgery, so it's going to be interesting to see how he reacts to this one."
The competition was the brainchild of the late Leonard Waxdeck, a biology teacher who came up with the idea in the 1960s when told by his students that they wanted something to do.
"I think it just kind of started as 'hey, let's do something with our time,' " said Ken Brown, a social studies teacher who is the contest's producer and 2012 emcee.
Waxdeck had worked in a factory at one time and remembered how he and co-workers did bird calls during slow periods.
"He brought it to the student body, and -- next thing you know -- here we are," Brown said.
The contest took a two-year hiatus in the mid-'90s, Brown said but was revived by community members who rolled up their sleeves to get the job done. In the early years, the contest was a formal affair with students performing in tuxedos and formal dresses, Brown said.
While the contest is not tied to any part of the curriculum, the students put in countless hours researching the birds and their sounds, Brown said. And despite the zany atmosphere, the bird calling contest has a positive value to the school and student body, he added.
"It just adds to the fun atmosphere," Brown said. "Our kids know how to work hard, they know how to get the job done in the classroom. They're successful, but they can also relax and have a good time."
Piedmont High also gains a good deal of exposure from the "Late Night" appearance. Last year Brown received emails from educators as far away as Australia asking how they could stage a similar event.
Second-place winner Fenua Ibabao was sporting a green Mohawk haircut, a tribute to the green heron he imitated. He chose the heron because he liked the color and head plumage that resembles the American Indian-style hairdo. Ibabao said he was excited to make the trip because he has never been to New York.
It takes a certain amount of courage to get up on stage and quack like a duck. Wes Dunlap, part of the third-place trio that also includes students Lawrence Ma and William Meredith, admits that imitating a California quail in love can elicit some lighthearted derision from classmates.
"They make fun of us doing bird calls, but it's fun when you can do a skit on TV." he said. "I don't know why you wouldn't want to do it."
Hana Wasserman, whose eastern screech owl call did not make the cut this year, found the experience rewarding.
"I would have never done anything like this before, but I thought the whole thing was good -- doing it despite stage fright," she said.
"Losing with honor is more important than winning."