Owl pellets

Students dissect owl pellets to learn what an owl has for a meal. The opening of this owl pellet revealed a jawbone.

NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC

Dissecting owl pellets is a science activity that almost every fourth-grader in Nebraska gets to complete. You may have even heard your students come home from school and mention they got to rip apart an owl pellet.

But what is an owl pellet? Is it feces, or is it what an owl vomits?

What if I told you it was neither of those? Let’s jump right in and dissect this issue.

Owl pellets are the regurgitated remains of an owl’s meal. When an owl eats its food, such as a mouse, small bird, shrew, or some other small animal, it eats the whole thing. The owl will even eat the brains, bones, guts, fur/feathers, muscle, fat — everything.

The owl digests the soft tissue, such as the muscles and fat, but cannot break down the bones, fur or feathers. When an owl consumes these parts of an animal, these parts go into a small pouch-like area called the crop. The bones and fur/feathers remain in the crop, where they are compacted into a small ball or pellet. A few hours after the owl eats, the owl will flex its stomach muscles and regurgitate this small pellet of bones and fur/feathers. All owls, eagles, hawks and falcons produce pellets.

A common question we get is: “Why in the world are we letting students touch regurgitated remains from an owl?” Well, in Nebraska, our owl pellets are purchased online. The company we purchase these owl pellets from has a team of “owl pellet collectors" who visit forests and wild areas every four to six months and check several roost sites on their route. The collected owl pellets are returned to the company, where they are heat-pasteurized in an oven. They are heated to about 260 degrees for 10 hours. This process kills all bacteria and sanitizes the pellets. The pellets are then wrapped in foil and packaged for mailing. Teachers receive a set of owl pellets for their classes to dissect.

Dissecting owl pellets is a useful technique for wildlife biologists and students to learn about an owl’s lifestyle. When an owl attacks its prey, most of the bones remain intact, even through the digestion process. Students and biologists then can identify them easily and figure out what an owl is eating, and where they and their prey stand in the food chain.

In Nebraska, it is easy to find your own owl pellets. Look for them at the bases of large trees, or a place where you have seen owls flying around. You never know what you are going to find in one.

Monica Macoubrie is a wildlife education assistant with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Contact her at monica.macoubrie@nebraska.gov.

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