Interview with Nicole Perretta, 8/22/2010

Nicole Perretta was kind enough to give WORK a few minutes of her time by conducting an email interview. Featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen Degeneres Show, Perretta has built a reputation as the finest. Keep in mind, she is not just another whistler. This gal can really sing!

JM: What is your job description?

NP: Part-time Bird call performer/instructor

JM: Did you consciously decide to be a professional bird caller?

NP: The work has pretty much found me. I’ve worked as an avian caregiver most of my adult life. Bird calling just went with the territory.

JM: How did you come to be a bird caller?

NP: I started to imitate birds when I was a child, but throughout the years I have performed in front of audiences for free. As I became more well-known, I started to get paid for my performances.

JM: As a bird call expert, what was your most recent job? Who did you work with and where? What was the overall experience?

NP: I worked for a film production company in Canada as a bird vocals advisor on a new feature film coming out in 2011. The experience was great, I could write a whole article about that, but I’ll save it until after the film comes out.

JM: Has anybody told you that you’re crazy or that you can’t make a living on bird calls?

NP: Many people, especially those I went to school with. They just thought I was plain crazy and annoying. I think most people who have known me for a while aren’t surprised when they hear of my career. Most probably think, “It figures.”

I actually do not have the time to be a full time bird caller, so I do not make my entire living from bird calls. That would entail a lot of traveling and I’ve got a family to take care of, so I limit my bird calling work to only part time.

JM: How did your parents react to your bird calling when you were young?

NP: They told me to go outside.

JM: How do your parents react to your career now?

NP: They are proud of what I’ve done. I’ve always worked in bird related fields, so I’m sure they think it’s a natural progression for me.

JM: You have children, what do they think of bird calling?

NP: My oldest probably likes the bragging rights he has from having a mom who has been on Jay Leno and Ellen. My youngest walks around the house listening to bird calls on my ibird app and squawks in unison.

JM: Run us through a typical bird calling scenario – from the reason you’re making the call to the finale.

NP: If I’m outside and I see a raven fly by, I’ll usually call it and watch it wing around and circle over me. When he starts to fly away, I call again and coax him to land in a tree and our “conversation” will begin. We’ll call back and forth for a few, then I’ll stop and let him continue on his way. If I am on stage, I usually perform a collection of calls the audience may be familiar with.

JM: Do you often record your calls? What kind of equipment do you use in recording?

NP: I have a CD I produced with about 130 bird calls on it. I am in the process of recording an instructional CD. Some of the equipment I use are a macbook, M-audio interface with Pro Tools LE( though I often just use garage band), MicThing, and MXL 990 Condenser microphone.

JM: What are the steps to learning a call? Any special diaphragm exercises or research skills required?

NP: This will be explained in my new CD, stay tuned!

JM: Do you know about the rule of 10,000 hours [see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers]? About how many hours do you think you’ve clocked bird calling?

NP: I’ve heard of that rule, and I wish I knew the answer to this. I’ve spent almost my whole childhood doing bird calls almost every day and I’ve worked professionally with birds for 20 years, talking with them every day. I’m sure I’ve logged 10,000!

JM: Once you learn one call, are all other calls easy?

NP: Once I learn a particular sound, then I can make many different calls using the same sound.

JM: What are the differences in calls?

NP: Some high pitched, some are low; some are clear sounding, others raspy.

JM: Which is your favorite bird call?

NP: Whichever gives the best reaction out of the bird I’m calling at the moment. My hawk calls get the best reaction out of an audience.

JM: Can you discern personalities of birds?

NP: Each species have their own generic behaviors that one can predict. It is not until you develop a personal relationship to birds, as in working with captive birds or observing specific groups in the wild over long periods of time, where individual personalities can be discerned.

JM: How do you feel about Myna birds / Starlings?

NP: They are much better at mimicking than I.

JM: Do you have conversations with birds?

NP: Sort of. Birds express basic desires through their calls such as, danger, curiosity, contact, aggression, attraction, and food. If one learns to discern these calls for different species of birds, and learns to imitate them, it is possible to hold a bird’s attention and “speak” to them for extended periods of time.

JM: What are they thinking about; any existential pangs or ecological lectures? If we included a couple bird representatives in this interview, what would they say?

NP: Is this a pet bird or wild bird? A pet bird would probably say, “Scratch my head, give me a snack, and bring me a new toy.” A wild bird would likely say, “Yikes! Big, scary, mammals! I’m out of here.”

JM: What are the traits of a good bird caller?

NP: A well muscled voice box and the ability to laugh at one’s self.

JM: Is there special equipment in this job?

NP: Bottled water

JM: Where do you work / What does your office look like?

NP: I work mostly in class room settings or on stage. My office is a laptop.

JM: Do you have a limit to how many bird calls you can make in a day?

NP: About 30 minutes a day, or 40 calls.

JM: Do you keep pet birds?

NP: I’ve kept pet birds for about 30 years of various species, but do not own a pet bird at this time due to my travel schedule.

JM: How do you feel about hunters?

NP: I think they contribute a lot to the conservation of wildlands. Much of the hunting license fees go directly into preserving habitat for game animals, which in turn saves habitat for all manner of wildlife. Most hunters I know are also ecologists and have a lot of knowledge and respect for the quarry they pursue, and have a keen interest in preserving their wildlife heritage.

JM: Why bird calls?

NP: It started as just something fun to do as a kid, but later as an adult I realized my talent was a bit unique, so I continued refining my skills and adding more species to my list. I think I’m up to 160 species now.

JM: How do people respond to your calls? Do you ever whip a bird call out in a crowded location, like Times Square?

NP: Usually in amazement. I try to keep my calls to myself unless I’m performing or out bird watching. I don’t want to give anyone a reason to send me to the loony bin! However, I have thrown a few calls out when at the zoo. I’ll be in front of an exhibit talking to the birds and people are looking everywhere for the “bird” they just heard. It’s kinda entertaining.

JM: Some people have work-related stress dreams – what’s your stress dream?

NP: Getting a head cold before an important job.

JM: You also make bird paintings and illustrations. What medium do you use?

NP: Acrylic and watercolor

JM: How long have you been at that?

NP: I started drawing birds about 30 years ago.

JM: Did you attend art school?

NP: I went to Idllywild Arts ( then known as Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts)

JM: Tell us about the books your artwork is featured in.

NP: I illustrated Understanding the Life of Birds, by Patrick G. Coyle, The Complete Bird Owner’s Handbook, by Dr. Gary Gallerstien DVM, Taxonomy of a Marsh Wren, by Phillip Unit, cover of the December 2005 issue of The Raptor Journal and I have also done illustrations for the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Zoo, and San Diego and Buena Vista Audubon Society.

JM: You also are doing voice over work? How is that going?

NP: I may be doing some looping work for a feature film in the near future.

JM: How has your work taken you to unexpected places?

NP: I recently returned from Canada in where I worked on a feature film as a bird advisor, specializing in bird sounds. I met with the director and producers and got to work with a screen actress.

JM: What was the most gratifying moment of your career?

NP: I think anytime I see a room full of children blurting out bird calls in perfect imitation is my most gratifying moment.

JM: How has being a guest on TV shows changed your career / your viewpoint regarding what you do?

NP: Being on T.V. has helped me to receive recognition and perhaps some credibility. Before being on T.V., I only performed bird calls at work parties, and after T.V. I am now requested as a national speaker.

JM: How many professional bird callers are there in North America? Are bird calls more popular in other countries?

NP: The only other professional bird callers I know of are individuals who have won National Wild Turkey Federation calling contests. They however do not use their voice, they use mouth pieces or manual calls to produce the sounds. These guys are often featured in hunting shows and conventions, and hunting magazines. There are a few speakers and bird watchers who imitate birds in their talks. Some whistle ( quite well) and some “pish” which is a shushing or kissing sound used to attract songbirds. I think most bird watching speakers can imitate at least a few birds. As far as I know I am the only one who can imitate 160 calls. I am not sure about other countries. My internet and youtube searches have come up empty. I do think there are some birding guides in other countries who whistle and do vocal bird calls to attract birds for paying bird watchers.

JM: Who is the typical bird caller?

NP: Hunters, bird watchers and researchers use bird calling to attract target species. Most people use digital recordings or manual/mouth calls to produce the sounds. There are some individuals who do vocal calls, but it is rare.

JM: How can an every-day person, such as your interviewer, make a positive impact for birds in his/her community?

NP: I think one of the best things we can do is to make sure our children have an appreciation for wildlife and wild places. People only protect what they know and love, and we must instill a love of birds and wildlife in children to insure the future of wild places.

An additional thing we can do to protect birds is to help at home by keeping our pet cats indoors. Domestic cats are responsible for the deaths of thousands of song birds annually. With habitat loss in both breeding and wintering grounds, song bird populations are decreasing rapidly. Domestic cats are not native to North America and when they kill native birds and other wildlife, they are creating unbalance to the ecosystem. Cats can learn to walk on a leash and if space allows, a cattery can be built to allow the kitties fresh air without allowing them complete freedom. We love our pets, but we need to love our wildlife too.

JM: Do you recommend bird watching journals or nature journals? Why? Should a person invest in an official journal or what?

NP: I think just about anything you want to know about bird watching can be found online. There are a lot of bird watching blogs and websites out there. If one wants to read stories about bird watching, leaf through nice photos, see lists of birding events and tours, or to watch what the latest birding products available are, then printed journals would be helpful. Bird Watcher’s Digest, Birder’s World and Wildbird Magazine are popular. I think some of these journals have digital versions now, if one would prefer to read online.

JM: How do you feel about bird call ringtones?

NP: They have some? Where can I buy one?

JM: Which organizations are doing good work for birds?

NP: Almost every type of bird has their own organization that promotes conservation, research and education for those species: Ducks Unlimited, Peregrine Fund, Hawkwatch International, and National Wild Turkey Federation, to name a few. Local wildlife rehabilitation centers help on the individual level, and do a lot of outreach programs to help educate the public. Oiled Wildlife Care Network is among many who are helping to save oiled wildlife in the gulf as we speak. Accredited zoos also do a lot for birds in helping to breed and rear critically endangered species and reintroduce them back into the wild. The California Condor is one example of a captive rearing success story. Birdlife International, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Audubon Society, do a lot for birds and are good places to start if one is looking to learn more.

JM: Do you feel you’ve become a spokesperson for birds?

NP: I’m not sure. Perhaps I have helped a few kids appreciate birds more. When they hear a bird call, they may be able to recognize the species, or may even be able to imitate it after one of my classes. I feel I’m more of a spokesperson for the outcast kid who would rather spend an afternoon watching and talking with birds than play video games. Perhaps I can give some hope to these kids who think they are weird and different, and that it is ok to pursue uncommon dreams. Sometimes kids are shy and afraid to make noise in front of other people for fear of retribution. Perhaps when a child sees an adult on stage being noisy and sounding funny, it will give them the confidence that it is ok to be expressive and even a little strange.

Please check for updates and new products at Nicole’s website:

For Perretta’s art:

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