They squawked. They chirped. They cackled. And when the feathers finished flying Gabe Bolio, James Clifford and Eli Nash walked away with the Leondard J. Waxdeck Trophy on Friday night as the winners of the 48th Piedmont High School Bird Calling Contest.
Gabe, James and Eli, all juniors, wowed the judges with their rendition of Tympanuchis cupido, the Greater Prairie Chicken. Senior Dina Zangwill placed second with her call of Gavia stellata, the Red Throated Loon. And sophomores Becca Havian, Jo Ireland and Amy Kelleher finished third with a spirited mating call of Falco rusticolus, the Gyrfalcon.
All three acts will fly New York later this month to appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman," continuing a tradition dating back to 1997 on the Letterman show and another 16 years before that on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."
The evening was a double triumph for Eli, who also served as co-host for the event with his friend, Alec Sieben, who competed as well with fellow juniors Zane Haney and Brian Lee, peforming the call of Grus Americana, the Laughing Gull.
Before the curtain went up Eli and Alec were asked how it felt to be both co-hosts and rivals at the same time.
"We respect and admire each other as hosts," said Eli, "but we despise each other as competitors."
The evening also featured a singing quartet of Lucy Faust, Sofia Gotch, Apryl Hsu and Nako Narter, who diverted the standing-room-only audience with a do-wop rendition of "Rockin' Robin" while the judges – author Kelly Corrigan, retiring Piedmont Middle School principal Jeanne Donovan and retiring Piedmont High School English and Public Speaking teacher Janet Labberton – reached their decision.
The crowd also viewed a rare video of the Piedmont bird ballers' very first appearance on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" in 1976, followed by a surprise appearance by Carson's nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who presented principal Richard Kitchens with a framed poster from the 1990 contest, which Waxdeck, the contest's founder, gave to Carson.
"It hung on the wall in Johnny's office until he retired, then it hung in his home until he died," said Sotzing. "Then it passed to me. But I think it's time it came back to where it came from."
Kitchens promised it will hang in a place of honor at the school, right next to the Waxdeck Trophy itself.
The bird calling contest began in 1963 as a class project in Waxdeck's biology class after one of his students asked him, "Wax, can we do something to liven things up here?"
The first competition, held in Waxdeck's classroom at lunchtime, drew only a handful of spectators. But its popularity mushroomed, and it had to be moved to the school's Alan J. Harvey Theater, where it quickly became the hottest ticket in town.
In 1976 Johnny Carson began hosting the bird callers on his show for the next 16 years.
"It was huge," said history teacher Ken Brown, who has been the contest's faculty advisor for the past four years. "I remember being a teenager back in the '70s and watching the bird callers every year on 'The Tonight Show.' When I finally got hired to teach here, I thought, 'This is the place!'
Carson retired in 1992, and Waxdeck died suddenly from a heart attack two years later. It looked like the bird calling contest had run its course.
But the students refused to let it die. They resurrected the competition in 1995 and asked Carson's successor, Jay Leno, to host the bird callers on "The Tonight Show."
Leno, who was still trying to get out from under Carson's shadow, turned them down. But Letterman, who adored Carson, was glad to have them on his show. And there they have appeared ever since.
The students will fly to New York on May 20 and appear on "The Late Show" the next night, May 21.
And the contest's future is assured. Sitting in the second row and having the time of their lives were Eli's sister Emily and her friends Molly Szczech, Addie Christensen and Amelia Eldridge, all eighth graders at Piedmont Middle School who will enter Piedmont High next year.
"We're going to enter the contest together!" said Amelia. "We've already started practicing!"