Owl Pellets (and other things)

Owl Pellets, Hats, ECO Club and Matthews State Forest

On Thursday, March 15th, BRDC gave a short owl pellet dissection workshop for ECO Club members and a couple of teachers. Three weeks prior, Eric Harrold (BRDC board member) collected approximately 400 barn owl pellets from a local barn, which will support many such workshops for some time to come. I wrapped each one in aluminum foil and sterilized them in our oven, as recommended.

Owls, along with hawks, crows, and kingfishers, all share a mechanism for dealing with the undigestible hard parts of consumed prey. Owl stomachs, (as do most animal stomachs), contain acids used to break down food. What cannot be digested in this manner is then regurgitated while the softer parts pass into the intestinal tract. In order to avoid burning the throat and mouth as the acidic pellet passes back up and out, the pellet is covered with a pH neutral coating of mucous which also serves to ease its passage mechanically. The mucous covering keeps the pellet in a neat package, which students of anatomy and owl diet can then research. I am also reminded of how an archeologist might approach an important artifact, carefully brushing bits of dirt and debris away from the object of interest. The entire process is fully one of discovery.

Equipped with a microscope and magnifying lenses, tweezers, picks and brushes, we teased apart pellets and examined the contents while referring to charts (thanks to Carolina Biological Supply) specific to typical owl prey. Often within one pellet, which constitutes one meal, we found several skulls and remains. For instance, in one we found a mouse, vole and bird. Often hairs and feathers accompany the bones as these are difficult to digest as well.

Maggie and Shae impart their enthusiasm (above).

The ECO Club pellet run was just a prelude to Saturday’s (March 17th) Go Green Event at our local Matthews State Forest. Deb Greif, support teacher for the ECO Club and three of her students shared the BRDC table with a hat making exercise and our owl pellet demonstration. While kids constructed hats from newspapers and decorated them with ribbons, stickers, magazine cut-outs, and other fun stuff, William Roberts (BRDC board member) and I assisted with the owl pellet component. Becky Rader (BRDC advisory board) was on hand to assist kids in sketching the bones found within the pellets. Eventually the idea to glue tiny skulls on the hats gave rise to a most unique collaboration between ‘art’ and ‘science’.

Zach Olinger, State Forester, and his sons examine owl puke.

Saturday marked another pivotal moment in BRDC history: the maiden voyage of the Discoverymobile, our lab trailer. From time to time we took people out to the ‘lab’ for a show and tell session, impressing upon the public our ability to bring the necessary tools of outdoor discovery to them.