We spend a lot of time looking out for birds. We also look for signs of birds like nests, feathers and even scat. One thing we have not spotted is a pellet, an owl pellet to be specific. We have yet to spot an owl or it’s roost so finding owl pellets has been difficult.
Many birds regurgitate pellets. From our research we have learned the formation of pellets is most common in birds that eat prey whole. These pellets consist of indigestible parts of insects and animals such as wing cases, exoskeletons, bones, fur and feathers. These parts are formed into a pellet in the gizzard and expelled through the mouth.
There are a few very neat things you can learn about birds by studying their pellets. Ornithologists dissect pellets to learn about a bird’s health and diet without causing any harm to the bird. Since prey is swallowed whole the contents of the pellet can be identified and tell researchers what types and variety of prey the bird has been dining on, which can give an overall picture of health. This gives scientists important information about the bird as an individual and about the ecosystem it inhabits. Pretty neat stuff.
While we have not had luck finding pellets in the wild we did get lucky on a recent field trip. We had the opportunity to visit an animal rescue center here in Nova Scotia and it just so happens that they were in the care of a few owls. It was very exciting to see the little Saw-whet owl they brought out to share and just as much fun to check out the pellets. After the presentation we approached one of the volunteers to ask if they had any owl pellets they would be willing to give us for dissection. She was happy to pass on a few for our little science project.
When we got home we baked our pellets to kill any bacteria that might be present. Then we set up a lab area away from where we prepare our food and set off on our dissection. We knew that the owls at the center were only fed mice so we already had a good idea of what we would find but it was still very interesting to come across such complete bones and study all of the hair that was in each pellet. The jaw bones with teeth still in place were by far the most exciting find for the kids.
It was a great project for the kids to learn about birds eating habits, the relationship between predator and prey and also the idea that everything is used in nature. After our dissection we learned that pellets support a whole network of insects that survive on the hair, bone and feathers found in the pellets. So fascinating.
If you would like to learn more this is a very interesting video showing a dissection with multiple types of prey in one pellet.
You can also order pellets for dissection from the following companies (We have not ordered from these companies but in our research we found that these ones came up often as offering safe sterilized pellets):
Carolina Biological Supply Company (they also have interesting information under their teacher resources tab)
We have plans to use the bones we found to reconstruct a mouse skeleton this winter. That should be a good project for a cold snowy day.
Have you ever seen an owl or dissected an owl pellet? We would love to hear your story.