Do It for Science: Dissecting Owl Pellets

barn owl

Obviously we think owl pellets are pretty cool. As hands-on science lessons go, dissecting owl pellets is great for a number of reasons. First, unlike experiments in which you're trying to replicate or cause an event or reaction in the same way that it's happened before, no dissection of one owl pellet will be the same as another. Each owl pellet is unique, which means that no two dissections will be alike. Second, dissecting an owl pellet doesn't just give you information about the owl itself, but it also teaches valuable lessons about the environment in which an owl lives and feeds. Lastly, owl pellet dissection is a tactile activity that gives participants to see science leap out of the pages of a book or off of a screen. And we happen to think that dissecting owl pellets makes learning fun. 

How to Dissect an Owl Pellet

First thing's first: While you could wander around in an area where owls are known to visit or reside searching for pellets to dissect, we wouldn't recommend you do so. It's not the most efficient way to get your hands on the precious pellets, and handling unsterilized owl pellets presents some problems of its own. Here at Pellets Inc., we've been providing high-quality owl pellets for more than 30 years, all of which are ethically sourced, heat-sterilized and individually wrapped. We also put part of the money we earn from being pellet purveyors into establishing and enhancing owl habitats through the placement of nest boxes in sites that need them. Preservation and education are at the core of all that we do.

So, once you've procured our individual pellets or one of our pellet kits, what comes next?

Sure, you could tear into your pellets with wild abandon and see what you find (and we certainly understand the impulse to do so—owl pellets are full of possibility), but we suggest introducing a little method into your madness. Some scientific method, as it were.

Step one: gather your supplies. What you'll need:

  • Owl pellets (one per person or pair of people)
  • Large tweezers, plastic forceps or dissection sticks
  • Hand lens or magnifying glass
  • Owl pellet bone identification chart and study guide

At Pellets Inc., we make the supply-gathering step simple with our Field Biology KitClassroom and Deluxe Classroom owl pellet kits. Once you've assembled the necessary goods and equipment, you're ready to begin.

Owl Pellet Dissection Guide

The first stage of any lab-based science activity (after ensuring you have everything you need) is always observation. Scientific discovery means using as many senses as possible to gather data for analysis. In other words, it's important to look before you touch. Take a gander at your pellet—remember, no two pellets are alike—taking notes about what you see, if necessary.

Now you can tear into your owl pellet—carefully. 

Lay out newspapers our paper towels on your work surface before unwrapping your owl pellet. Once it is unwrapped, pull it apart gently using your tools, hands or both. Remember that the bones, fur, seeds and other matter that you'll find within are fragile and will need a slow, steady and careful hand. 

Start to pick apart what you find, observing that not only are pellets made of the bones of the small creatures the owl has swallowed, but also fur, feathers and flora representative of the region or area in which the owl lives. 

Separate the bones from the rest of the matter with your tweezers or forceps, and use your hand lens to get an up-close look to assist you in attempting to sort the skeletal bits according to size, type and species. 

At this juncture, you're ready for the big payoff: Using the owl pellet dissection chart to identify your finds.

Decode It: Using Your Owl Pellet Dissection Bone Chart

While you could really go all out on species identification by digging deep into Google and cracking dusty reference manuals, there's no need to undertake what could well end up being a frustrating and ultimately fruitless quest. 

We'll happily provide you with the materials to make sussing out your finds simple and fun with our owl pellet bone identification charts. Each of our bone-sorting charts and posters contain the species and bone pieces you're likely to find in your pellets, with clear and handy drawings that allow you to classify the skeletal pieces of rodents, shrews, moles and birds, from their skulls on down to the smallest vertebrae. Along the way you'll learn how to discern a front leg from a hind leg and a rib from a shoulder blade. Our owl pellet dissection charts make sorting and organizing your finds the best time you can have with a bunch of bones—and should you want to save your finds as a study aid or simply for posterity, you can affix the bones to their corresponding boxes on the owl pellet bone identification chart and have a keepsake of the day that you took a deep dive into dissecting owl pellets. 

For further information about how to dissect an owl pellet, complete with supplies, expertise and kits to make your own scientific exploration a success, please contact us. We'd love to help!

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