Maddie Nightingale - Bird Caller
By Kerri Regan
Call of the Wild
By Kerri Regan
Photos by Melinda Hunter
Maddie Nightingale wasn’t much taller than a goose when her grandfather took her fishing for the first time. “I was about 3, and there’d be geese and ducks swimming around. He could call Canadian geese and speckle bellies and he wanted me to try it, so I tried it and it worked,” Maddie says.
Now 16, the Foothill High School junior has become an award-winning bird-calling celebrity of sorts.
“She calls better than anyone we go out with,” says her grandfather, Vince Aiello. “At the state calling contest, she’s the only female in any category. She can identify birds, which is very hard for a lot of people to do while they’re flying. She can hear birds five seconds before anybody else hears them.”
Even more fascinating than Maddie’s unusual talent is the method she uses – her voice alone. “What made me unique was not using a call, especially because I’m a girl,” Maddie says. “It’s mostly something that guys are into.”
She expanded her repertoire using an online resource through Cornell University’s ornithology program. “You can look up a type of bird and it would give you the call. I would mimic it,” she says. She can mimic the call of honkers, mallards, specks, sandhill cranes and many more.
Maddie has been calling in competitions since she was 10, and has received clothing and products from a variety of national companies. She made a commercial for the California state calling contest, and has called for Ducks Unlimited dinners, Pheasants Forever, the California Waterfowl Association and a Fish and Wildlife Academy graduation. She was also featured in a video for an online show, “The Fowl Life.” In Maddie’s episode, she issues a series of elaborate honks, and soon, dozens of birds appear overhead. “Just to see all those snows and specks coming in – I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she says.
Decked out in her camouflage clothing (never, ever pink), she pops out of a blind, takes aim and fires. Though some people give her a hard time about hunting, she considers herself an avid conservationist. “Hunting is a form of conservation and population control,” Maddie says. “I’m involved with the California Waterfowl Association, and they help educate the youth on how to respect the environment they’re in, and the safety things they need to know.”
Maddie hunts with Dakota, her chocolate Lab, and her favorite place is a friend’s property in Weed, where she helped build a duck pond. “If they’re flying in the air, I call a little more mellow. They’re more active, so they’re talking more,” Maddie says. “On the ground, it’s a little less noisy, so I’ll do little quacks or honks here and there.”
Her grandfather adds, “It’s like singing – a honker is a different sound than a speckle belly goose, but both have the same type of rhythm to it. It’s a little deeper, the cadence is a little different. She has an ear for it.”
And the skill comes in handy even when they’re not hunting. One time, a woman wanted to take a picture of some swans, so “Maddie called to them and they swam right over to her,” says her grandmother, Linda.
The girl whose “life revolves around hunting, duck calling and softball” especially enjoys the quality time with her grandfather, and to this day, they still go get chocolate shakes after a hunt, just like they did when she was tiny.
“Hunting means a lot to me,” Maddie says. “It’s always something I’ve done with my grandpa and something I’ve always enjoyed, so I want other generations to enjoy that, too - especially little girls, because it’s such a male-dominated hobby.”
Aiello adds with a smile, “There are a lot of guys who want to be her grandpa.”