Owl Pellets 101
I sift through dozens of owl pellets a year, searching for the right bones to use in my art and jewelry. I highly encourage those who are interested in bones, ecology, archaeology/paleontology, or science in general to dissect an owl pellet or two. It can be a lot of fun uncovering the tiny bones and skulls. Keep reading to learn more about owl pellets!
What is an owl pellet?
An owl pellet is a compacted mass of indigestible material, comprised mostly of fur and bones. Owls do not have any teeth so they take large bites of their food and swallow everything without chewing. Everything that the owl swallows but cannot digest (bones, teeth, claws, feathers, some insect shells, etc.) is regurgitated to make room for new food. I like to think of an owl pellet as the bird version of a hairball.
Where can you find owl pellets?
You can find owl pellets wherever there are owls! The best places to find owl pellets are at the base of trees where an owl may build a nest, or on the floor near barns where owls may roost. It is important that the owls are never disturbed when searching and collecting owl pellets. Some people even go so far as to build an owl house with a removable compartment for cleaning and collecting pellets. For those who are less adventurous, owl pellets can be purchased through numerous online retailers.
Are owl pellets safe to touch?
I always wear gloves when working with owl pellets and recommend others to do the same. Owls eat rodents that can transmit diseases and although it is highly unlikely that anyone will be infected from an owl pellet, it is always better to be safe than sorry. Most of the major educational companies that sell owl pellets use heat to sanitize the pellets, rendering them safe to handle. I would consider owl pellets relatively low risk in terms of health, but I still like to take precautions.
Methods of Dissection:
There are many different ways to dissect owl pellets. The important thing is to go slow and take your time. I will post a more detailed, step-by-step guide/lesson plan at a later date. Before your being, you will want to make sure you have the proper materials for dissection – I like to use small pointy instruments and tweezers, a paper plate to dissect the owl pellet on, and a paper towel to place the bones. After you have gathered your materials, use your fingers and tools to slowly pull apart the owl pellet. Some people prefer when the owl pellet is dry, while others prefer when the owl pellet is wet. There really is not a right or wrong way to dissect owl pellets! It may also be helpful to have a bone chart nearby, so that you can identify the general bones and animals that the animal ate.
Why would anyone want to dissect an owl pellet?
Owl pellets hold a wealth of information. By examining the bones found within, scientists can judge the overall feeding habits of the owls in the area. Changes in feeding habits can alert scientists to disease outbreaks, ecological impacts, climate change, and other problems affecting either owls or their prey. Owl pellets are also insanely fun to dissect; it is a great hand-on activity for encouraging children to take an interest in science. Who doesn’t love unearthing a skull?
Do all owl pellets contain skulls?
No. Every owl pellet will be different. I have dissected a large owl pellet before and found only one pelvis, other times I have dissected small owl pellets and found multiple shrew skulls. Part of what makes owl pellet dissection so much fun is that you will never know what you end up finding. Pellets can vary not only in size, but also with the types of animals being devoured. Some owls prefer to eat voles, while others like mice, shrews, or even muskrats! On the rare occasion, I have even found bird remains! In my experience, almost every pellet I have dissected has had at least 1 part of a skull in it, more often than not though these skulls are small fragments or severely broken. Intact skulls are uncommon, but not exceedingly rare, it all depends on the owl pellet.