Dissecting Owl Pellets

A couple of weeks ago, I taught some adorable 4- and 5-year-olds about raptors. We talked about how big bald eagles are, and how all raptors catch their food with their feet, and how you can see hawks in the trees along roadsides all winter. We talked about the different types of beaks and feet that exist in the bird world. We talked about how many raptors can’t digest all parts of their meal, and need to cough it up. And we dissected owl pellets.

I’ve been wanting to do this project–for myself, with my daughter, with a class–for a really long time, and it did not disappoint. A few of the kids were less excited about going through owl vomit than others.

They come in the mail, individually wrapped in tin foil. And when you open it up…

The pellets are made up of bone, fur, feathers and whatever else the bird has eaten but cannot process. To be honest, since the bones, fur and feathers are fairly readily identifiable, I find myself wondering what all the gray-brown stuff between them is.

I brought toothpicks and stiff paintbrushes for the kids to use to break apart the pellets and clean the bones. Your fingers are really best for most of the work, but occasionally another tool comes in handy. We also had a spray bottle filled with water on hand, which can help loosen up the material.

As soon as you break it open, you can see that the pellet is chock full of bones. Each one probably has a couple hundred inside. From tiny slivers of rib bones to skulls, jaws and teeth, there is a ton to see. I was hoping we might encounter something really interesting, like a frog or bird skull, but this was consistently rodent refuse.

As you clean each piece, you start to be able to visualize the various creatures that made up the owl’s meal…

The pellets came with some anatomy maps that could be put to better use with an older group of students, but we had a blast and I wouldn’t hesitate to teach this lesson again to any age! It’s a perfect hands-on, get-messy activity that shows you real natural processes without you having to interfere in anything natural.

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