Owl Pellet Journal: A Collaboration with Grayson County’s 4-H and Blue Ridge Discovery Center

Our local 4-H has established a tradition of bringing owl pellet dissection to 4th grade science classes for a number of years. Covering the geographic extent of Grayson County ‘s elementary schools required two days, the first beginning in Fries and ending in Fairview, on the 4th of November. In between we hit Baywood. On our second day, November 11th, we started at Independence Elementary and finished up at Grayson Highlands School. For the two days our student total reached 119.

Actually, the owl pellet dissection exercise has been around for many years across our country in both public and private/home school environments. It remains a premier hands-on entry science project, always successful because the kids are mostly in control of their investigations. These pellets come from barn owls, which true to their name, inhabit barns and other large human made structures that are typically situated in an agricultural environment and especially open country that includes vast fields. All owls and indeed most raptors produce pellets, but finding pellets outdoors is difficult, and the pellets don’t hold up well under varying weather conditions. The barn floor provides a better pellet harvesting zone. 

Owls swallow most prey whole, and at some point in their digestive process the bones and fur are separated and eventually rejected prior to digestion, and coughed up in the form of a mucous covered ball, or pellet. These pellets reveal what animal the owl had for a meal, and have offered scientists the opportunity to not only better understand the diet of owls, but also what small mammal populations are about in a given area of study. When kids sit down to inspect an owl pellet, they are in fact performing real science.
Naturally, for a kid’s first time owl pellet experience, there are some gross-out hurdles to overcome. They are told that pellets are not poop, not puke, and have been sterilized. Still, until they get started, skeptical expressions remain the norm. It doesn’t take long, though, for all of that initial reluctance to give way to full on excitement. It always happens. Once they start finding the tiny skulls and other bones and begin to identify the critter meal, they are hooked.
When conducting an owl pellet program, all we need for each student aside from their very own pellet, is a bone chart and a couple of simple tools like tweezers and a toothpick. We explain that this is part archeology, part forensic science, and it is up to them to match the bones to the chart as they dig away. Of course we help, and if time allows we bring out the magnifying glasses and sometimes even microscopes. 

An hour for 4th graders is just about right, but often at the session’s end we hear cries of despair, that they were having so much fun, and can we do this again? For this recent session, my favorite comment was, “I don’t like this, I love it!” As one girl was leaving the class to wash her hands, she turned to me and said, “Now I know I want to be a scientist!” Exactly.
I would like to thank the following teachers: Megan Boyer (Fries), Ginger Burnett (Baywood), Angela Martin (Fairview), Jennifer Aldred and Kasey Hallman (Independence), and Roberta Paisley (Highlands).
Also, special thanks to Grayson County 4-H for including Blue Ridge Discovery Center.