The Power of Owl Pellets

During the first week of November, Grayson County 4-H and BRDC teamed up to bring all of the 4th graders across Grayson County our famous owl pellet program. 

It always begins with ew, yuck and gross, because the idea of dissecting something that was once inside a living bird, summons visions of poop or puke. We explain that an owl pellet is similar to a fur ball your house cat occasionally coughs up. Basically, owls (and other raptors) avoid passing bones and hair through their digestive system by separating those parts out prior to swallowing the juicier bits. Yum.

We work with barn owl pellets due to the general ease of collecting them. Barn owls, true to their common name, like to roost and nest in barns, where they leave their neatly packaged pellets on the barn floor for us to find. Then we take them home, wrap them in tinfoil and sterilize them at high heat in our kitchen ovens. 

After overcoming their initial disgust, kids are instructed to dig in, break the pellets apart, and start poking around. We explain that this exercise is similar to archeology and forensic science. Our students use similar tools: tweezers, oversized tooth picks, small brushes and magnifying glasses. Each pellet comes with a chart that first lists the possible skulls they will find (rodent, shrew, mole and bird). After identifying which skull or skulls are contained within, they can then begin the task of identifying the smaller bones found under each skull on the chart. There is always a decent chance that more than one species of owl lunch will be found in a single pellet. By this time, the kids are completely engaged.

We also take time to talk about the barn owl’s life history, sharing pictures of this nocturnal majesty, and discuss more generally the habits of owls and which ones live in our Blue Ridge Region. We compare the call recordings of owls, and look at real owl skulls, talons and wings. It’s a pretty exciting owl hour for all, and the kids do not want it to end.

Many thanks to our 4-H leader, Erin Cox, and her enthusiastic interest in sharing this program with BRDC.