Students at Fisher Elementary School got up close and personal with owls on Tuesday morning, when Michael Clough of Southern Vermont Natural History Museum
Students at Fisher Elementary School got up close and personal with owls on Tuesday morning, when Michael Clough of Southern Vermont Natural History Museum brought some of his feathered friends over for a visit. The owls visited the school as a part of the school’s recent projects on owls. (Holly Pelczynski)

ARLINGTON -- Three new additions to the fifth grade at Fisher Elementary School on Tuesday were quite a hoot. Literally.

The school's two fifth grade classes were visited by three live owls, accompanied by Michael Clough, assistant director of the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum. Clough and his owls engaged the students for over an hour, teaching them about owl physiology, eating habits, calls, and the mythology surrounding owls.

"Did you guys talk about how smart owls are?" Clough asked the students, who had been studying owls for the past several weeks. "Their eyeballs outweigh their brains. Not great problem solvers."

This sort of interaction was sought throughout the presentation, as Clough invited questions and participation from the students.

Clough explained the basic physics behind owls' silent movement, and passed around an owl foot for the students to examine. "Bad news if you're a bunny, right?" he said, "An owl can ruin your whole day with this foot."

He went on, "Many people look at owls and say, ‘Oh, it's so sweet, it's so cute!' but do you think a mouse would say that?"

The first owl Clough introduced to the class was Smokey, a gray Eastern Screech Owl, who promptly pooped on the classroom floor, drawing a shocked "Eww!" from the students in the audience and a relieved, "Hey, it missed my shoe!" from Clough.

"All the live animals we have at the museum are in captivity for a reason," said Clough. For Smokey, that reason is an unknown injury that caused a detached retina, leaving him blind in one eye and unable to survive in the wild. The two other owls that traveled to Arlington with him, Aragorn the barred owl and Diana the saw-whet owl, were both hit by cars.

Screech owls are relatively small for owls, ranging from 6-10 inches in length, though Clough related a story of a man in Vermont who witnessed a screech owl take down a pheasant in his front yard early one morning. "Tough little birds, these owls," Clough mused.

The second owl, Aragorn, was a barred owl, the most common species in Vermont. The owl is known for its distinctive ‘Who cooks for you?' call, about which Clough said, "When we hear owls calling, there's two things they're saying: ‘Honey, where are you?' and ‘Get off my lawn!'"

Barred owls are also one of the only owl populations in the United States that has increased in recent years. When a student asked why, Clough responded, "Do you want to hear the whole boring, drawn-out thing?" to which students enthusiastically answered, "Yeah!" and "Sure!"

Aragorn also provided the highlight of the show, flying from Clough's hand to his travel box, over the heads of the delighted students.

The third owl, Diana the saw-whet, represented the smallest species of owl found in Vermont, weighing in at a mere quarter of a pound. Clough said saw-whets were interesting in that they broke several "owl rules." Unlike most other owls, they migrate in the winter, they don't have mates-for-life, and they don't return to the same place every year.

Toward the end of the presentation, Clough said, "We've been here a while, I don't want to keep you too bored," at which point almost every student in the room shouted "No!"

Clough closed out the presentation by teaching the students how to identify some owl sounds they might hear in Vermont, followed by a quiz, which the class passed with flying colors. One of the owl cries, a snow owl's alarm cry, struck the class as comical. "You laugh," said Clough, "but if you hear that sound, duck!"

Clough, who has a degree in environmental science with a biology concentration, began his work in the field at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in 1995. According to Clough, he was "looking for something to do that was in the field," after graduation, and volunteered with VINS. When an intern left the program unexpectedly, Clough asked to take their place, and has been working in animal education ever since. He currently serves on the board of directors for the museum, as well as a trainer/naturalist at Four Winds Nature Institute and the owner and operator of Rockhopper Outdoor Education.

"I was always interested in nature stuff," said Clough, "I couldn't tell you when the War of 1812 was fought, but I could name eight kinds of African antelope."

Clough was invited to the school by fifth-grade teacher Pat Preseault, who every year has her students study owls as an introduction to a unit on ecosystems. Preseault said she learned about Clough from an article in the Banner last year. "To have someone come in with three live owls, that beats anything I've done," said Preseault, "They thought the pellets were cool, but this tops that." The fifth grade students dissected owl pellets, masses of indigestible food that owls occasionally regurgitate, last week, and re-assembled small rodent skeletons they found within.

When Clough learned the students had dissected pellets, he said, "That was real science! What you guys did, a grad student is out there somewhere is doing that day after day after day. Sounds like it would be fun for the first few days, right?" to which most students answered positively, although several shook their heads passionately.

The Southern Vermont Natural History Museum, located at the Hogback Mountain scenic overlook in Marlboro, was incorporated in 1996, and while they do care for several live animals, most of their specimens are stuffed. "We're an old school natural history museum," said Clough, "Which means we have a lot of stuffed animals. According to Clough, the museum put on 155 direct learning programs in the past year.

At the end of the presentation, Clough fielded a few more questions from students. One asked what his favorite owl was, to which Clough responded, "I don't have an answer to your question. They're all so cool."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB