Glen Phillips, a master bird caller, is one of the people who will be filling the Mall with strange sounds at the 38th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, starting today.
Along with boat builders, fishing experts, duck decoy makers, conservationists and a wide range of musical performers whose muse lingers among the tides and marshes of their homes, Phillips is a part of the festival's "Water Ways" exhibit, which celebrates the life-rich maritime communities stretching from Long Island to North Carolina.
Phillips's marsh-life ilk -- flanked by the festival's other tributes to Latin music and the historic and artistic independence of Haiti -- will be on the south side of the Mall, and you might home in on it by listening to the calls.
"A duck call sounds like this," says Phillips just before blasting a startlingly loud quack over the phone. A reporter, ill prepared for its sonic magnitude, needs a moment to recover.
"When you blow into the call -- "
Sorry, can you repeat that again?
"When you blow into the call, you're actually saying certain words, something we call 'language,' " says Phillips, of Ocean City, who started making handcrafted birdcalls and other wildlife whistles more than five years ago. "The language of a duck call," says Phillips, "is 'ticka-ticka,' and 'quit, quit, quit.' That's what they seem to recognize."
Phillips, 37, started hunting when he was 8. His dad used to take him out of school early for expeditions on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. And while his father taught him how to hunt, Phillips taught himself how to call, using his first calling device at 16. (Birdcalls weren't very popular when he was growing up, he says; his dad never really used them.)
It takes Phillips, who's a locksmith by trade, about an hour to make one of his calls, which are typically fashioned from cherry, walnut or tropical cocobolo wood; sometimes he uses acrylic, too. They go for about $30; Phillips says he often sells more than 200 birdcalls after one of his shows.
Both his technique and his calls have been very effective throughout his hunting career, Phillips says, though birds tend to wise up. "You can be really aggressive with the calls at the beginning of the hunting season, but not at the end of the season," he says. That's because, by that time, the birds have "heard it all before." Late-season calling demands a more subtle, nuanced, creative approach.
But if you've heard one birdcall, well, you haven't heard them all. Phillips also makes goose, turkey and deer calls, and says he is the first person ever to create a chicken call. "There's never been one made, as far as I know," he says, giving no insight into whether chicken hunting is gaining momentum these days. But let's hear it.
"Cook Perdue!" Phillips blows. He verifies that the word he's saying is in fact "Perdue," which should sound just about right for the Maryland-based poultry company.
"And the kids just love" the calls, he says. Phillips's 10-year-old son, Hunter, who started duck hunting a few years ago, is also a fine caller, and the two started a club five years ago called Little Quackers, which has more than 50 members (check out www.littlequacker.com). Phillips has organized many demonstrations for kids in the Chesapeake Bay area, and says kids learn calls more easily than most adults.
"It's like Hooked on Phonics," he says. "Once they hear it once, they can duplicate it again and again." This seems to be as much of a compliment to kids as a warning to parents.
Phillips says he's slightly worried. He's heard predictions that 10,000 kids might show up for his calling demonstrations.
"He must be mistaken," says "Water Ways" curator Betty Belanus. The exhibitions may see that many kids over the course of the Folklife Festival, "but can you imagine 10,000 kids on one day?" says Belanus, adding, "You never can tell. He's really good with kids."
Festival director Diana Parker hopes that Phillips's weird bird noises -- or, for that matter, the son jarocho dance rhythms of the Latino music performances, or the Haitian ritual vodou drumming and dance -- won't be seen as something merely foreign to the lives of festival-goers.
The Folklife Festival runs until July 4 (excluding June 28 and 29) and is expected to attract more than a million people to its various cultural exhibits, musical performances and demonstrations. This year's other themes are "Nuestra Musica," focused on the world of Latin music, and "Haiti: Freedom and Creativity," which celebrates the 200th anniversary of the island nation's independence.
"The biggest risk is presenting something that is complex, nuanced and layered, and then only having people see it as something exotic," Parker says. "We want to show that there is a huge array of creative solutions to the life-and-death problems we all face."
She explains, "Moms sing lullabies to their children everywhere. The language and the tonal quality of these lullabies may be different, but beneath them is the same maternal love that all moms have for their children."
Birdcalls, too, come in different varieties, and all have the same overriding purpose. "You need to bring the animal in close enough to get a good shot," Phillips says.