BENNINGTON -- More than 140 visitors crowded into the children's room at Bennington Free Library on Thursday to see a troupe of live animals, including a bald eagle.
Michael Clough, of the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum, on Route 9 in Marlboro, introduced six animals to the capacity crowd during the hour-long program, which was part of the library's summer reading program. About half of the children in the audience had participated in the program previously this year, the theme of which was science. Seeing people still flowing into the room minutes before the program began, Clough remarked, "They must have all come for the gray tree frog."
"Science isn't just crazy-haired guys in lab coats," Clough said to the children, most of whom were between the ages of 6 and 12, once most people had settled into their seats, "It's getting out there, exploring and discovering!"
The first animal Clough produced was indeed the gray tree frog, Vermont's largest frog, averaging about two inches in length. Despite the size of the audience, Clough attempted to give everyone as close a look at the frog as possible, holding it on a large stick and walking around the room. The frog, which is nocturnal, can change its color to match the tree branches it calls its home, and, even more impressively to the children, freezes in the winter then thaws and goes about its business in the spring.
"No frog in the rainforest can do that trick," said Clough, "I think sometimes we forget how awesome our wildlife is right here in Vermont. We have some amazing creatures here."
Clough then showed the group a barred owl, one of the owls that visited Fisher Elementary School with Clough in February. The children and parents alike were thrilled to see the owl's signature trick, flying from Clough's gloved hand back into his traveling box (although, Clough was quick to clarify that the owl had not been trained to do this, but that it was simply a instinctual response). "If I were an owl with a skull my size," said Clough, "you could make a fist and put it right into my ear hole! If you wanted too... that would be kind of gross," drawing a laugh from the kids.
"You'll only see this owl during the daytime in the later winter or early spring," said Clough, "when there's a hard, icy crust on the ground. They can't make a living when its like that, so they need to work some extra shifts!" That time, the laughs came mostly from the parents.
The reactions to the third animal were split, with some children expressing excitement, while others expressed horror. The fully grown corn snake wrapped around Clough's arm as he tried to give everyone in the room a good look. "The cool thing about getting bit by a snake," said Clough, "is that they have very weak jaws. That's why they swallow things whole. It's not because they have bad manners."
He assured the children, and parents, that the only venomous snake in Vermont was the timber rattlesnake, which is very rare, and can be distinguished from other snakes in the area by its large, triangular head. "Especially if you're nervous," said Clough, "take an opportunity to touch a snake. It'll be a good step toward your recovery. I think the only reason we're afraid of snakes is that we don't know them very well. How many stories and movies do you know where the snake saves the princess?"
When Clough brought out the fourth animal, a rabbit, the children, now about 40 minutes into the program and growing slightly restless, became very loud and excited.
"Okay, I'm going to need you all to take a deep breath," said Clough when he had regained their focus, "We're going to see the bunny, then we're going to see one of the coolest animals you'll ever see... Then we're going to see the eagle."
Clough made them promise to stay very still and be very quiet for the eagle, who was relatively new to programs such as this one. "If he gets scared, I'm going to have to put him back, okay?" said Clough.
Before the bald eagle, however, Clough had to keep his promise about showing them the coolest animal they'd ever see. To fulfill this, he brought forth an adult snapping turtle. The turtle had been found in a pond in Bennington six years ago by a group of children, who kept it as a pet for a year before giving it to area environmentalist Marshall Case, who in turn kept it for a few years before donating it to SVNHM. Because of how much of its life was spent around humans, the turtle didn't once try to bite Clough.
Finally, Clough brought out the bald eagle. The bird had come to the museum after being hit by a truck in Wyoming, and Clough estimated that it was about 4-5 years old, as it still had some brown on its head. Clough mentioned that the bird doesn't travel much, as visitors to the museum tend to get angry when the bald eagle isn't present. Holding it with a glove, Clough fed the eagle to full pieces of chicken, which it devoured, bones and all in front of the fascinated children. Clough said that bald eagles, now off the endangered species list, are now starting to make a comeback in Vermont.
SVNHM is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission costs $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $2 for children ages 5-12. Children under 5 and members of the museum receive free admission. The museum is home to the Luman R. Nelson natural history collection, one of the largest collections of stuffed native species in the northeast, as well as live birds of prey and other animals, and 600 acres of trails.
"There's tons of stuff to learn at libraries, there's so much to learn online," said Clough to the children in closing, "There's so much great information out there and we need that so when we go outside we know if we're making a new discovery. And that's what this is all about, getting out there and discovering."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB