Friday, June 29, 2012

How To Dissect an Owl Pellet

There were plenty of topics that came to mind as I thought about writing a "how to" post (the prompt for today's Summer Blog Challenge.

I could write about how to:
- make a window star
- make homemade ice cream
- can and freeze fresh produce so it can be enjoyed during the winter
- make hand-embroidered toys
- travel with children and tweens

Instead, I chose something a bit untraditional: how to dissect an owl pellet. This is an activity that we did at William O'Brien State Park during the Memorial Day weekend. They had a variety of free naturalist-led programs, and this is one that the girls enjoyed.

First, we learned about owls, the types of owls that live in Minnesota, and the definition of an owl pellet. According to Wikipedia, a pellet is "...the mass of undigested parts of a bird's food that some bird species occasionally regurgitate. The contents of a bird's pellet depend on its diet, but can include the exoskeletons of insects, indigestible plant matter, bones, fur, feathers, bills, claws, and teeth."

We each chose an owl pellet that had been sterilized. These can be obtained from companies on the internet - there are many from which to choose.

Some people chose to use tools to  pick apart the pellet - like the wooden stick and tweezers that Olivia is using in the photograph below. 

As this is being done, different items are discovered. For example, in the photograph below you can see part of an animal's jaw and teeth.

Since the pellets have been sterilized, sometimes it is easier to use your hands to get the tiny bones and other items that are in the pellets. Sophia ended up doing this since she found the tweezers and stick a bit cumbersome to use.

As you're going through and removing items, it is interesting to set aside the fur that was regurgitated. It's surprising how much fur is in one that is in one pellet (see picture below).

As you go through the pellet, lay the items you find on a sheet of paper. The picture below shows the items that Sophia found in the owl pellet she dissected.

When you are done dissecting the pellet, you can use a reference sheet that has the names of bones and skeletons of small rodents that an owl typically would eat. Sometimes it is possible to create almost an entire skeleton from one pellet. 

(As a side note, the majority of the state parks in Minnesota are offering a variety of free science programs throughout the summer. These are a wonderful way to augment and enhance our homeschool science curriculum.) 


Lisa Marie Fletcher said...

A friend of mine told me they dissected an owl pellet and I had visions of poking through owl poop, then we went to a local science event and I learned it wasn't poo at all! I loved seeing what was in there. Crazy stuff.

What a neat how-to. :) Thanks for sharing!

What Remains Now said...

Fascinating! I'd heard of owl pellets but never imagined they contained so much.

Domestically Seasoned said...

This is such a great learning experience for kids. I love it! I always had a liking of dissecting objects.

Cynthia M. said...

Great post! I introduced my 7-year-old to owl pellet dissection, but our finds weren't nearly as interesting as yours. :)

Thanks for joining Windows on Wildlife! Your post has been added to our list (, and will also be in next week’s edition. If you would be kind enough to link back to Windows on Wildlife (, we’d really appreciate it!

See Jamie blog said...

This is one of those things I mean to do but still haven't done yet. I really don't think I can bring myself to disect actual animals (like frogs, etc) at home, so when we get to that either I'll have to send them off to a class somewhere, or have hubby take charge of that out in the garage! But this, the owl pellet, I could do. We actually did find part of one on our driveway one day, but it looked like something else had gotten to it before we did.
Maybe this'll be the year we ACTUALLY do this. ;)