TOWNSEND -- Six wise, old owls visited town. Unbeknownst to the audience, the birds' handlers imparted quite a bit of knowledge to a rapt crowd.
The spectators at Hawthorne Brook Middle School thought they were learning a few owl calls during the July 17 program "Eyes on Owls." But it was more than that.
"These kids will be learning a lot. They kind of won't realize it," presenter Mark Wilson said.
He and his wife Marcia put on the program. They house 15 owls at their home in Dunstable and introduce owls to more than 20,000 people each year through their shows.
"We've taken it to a whole new level," Mark said.
It is rare to see these birds. "You can't have wildlife as pets," Marcia told the crowd.
All of their birds have special needs; some have been injured and cannot fly, others were born in captivity and do not know how to survive in the wild. The couple has state and federal licenses to keep the wild animals.
None of their birds will ever live outside an aviary.
Before revealing the birds, the couple read "Owl Babies," a children's book by Martin Waddell about three baby owls waiting for their mother to return. Mark displayed the large book while Marcia read.
The nearly 300 in the audience helped with the reading, chanting out "'I want my mommie,' said Bill" when cued.
Some additional preparation was needed before the owls could be released one at a time from their custom-built containers.
His job was to clean up any "whitewash" the birds might leave behind and to collect any pellets they may have left in the container.
"We don't call it vomit or puke," Mark said. The birds cough up a pellet of undigested bones, fur and feather after meals. Because it is a normal part of their digestion, the negative words are not used.
Each bird was firmly attached by a tether to one of the Wilsons while it was out of its cage.
One bird, hit by a car, was missing a wing. The wing was too badly damaged to save, but the bird will likely live much longer in captivity than an uninjured wild owl.
The tufts on top of owls heads are not ears, Marcia said. A small screech owl twisted its head around as Mark tried to point out where the ears are on the side of the skull.
In response to an audience question, Mark said the birds can rotate their heads all the way around starting from a position of looking straight ahead. That means that an owl can move its head a total of circle and a half, he said. In contrast, most people can move their heads in about a half circle.
The most likely owl to be seen nearby is a barred owl that has stripes from shoulder to shoulder. "I think if Townsend had an official owl, it would be this," Mark said.
The audience imitated its call. Most birders identify their finds by sound, not sight.
It is more likely to hear an owl, a bird that hunts at night, than to see it, he said.
The program was a joint presentation of the Townsend Public Library and the Townsend Summer Recreation program. It was funded by the Friends of the Townsend Public Library and a grant from the Townsend Cultural Council.