What’s in a Pellet?

vole looking up for signs of owls out hunting

What species of animals are most common to find in owl pellets? The animals that owls eat, and therefore regurgitate, depend on the owl’s ecosystem. 

Owl Pellets: A Recap

Before we delve into the animal species most common to owl pellets—and the ones that come as a surprise—here’s a quick pellet primer: Generally speaking, owls consume their prey whole. Their bodies lack the ability to digest some parts of their meals like sharp-edged bones and teeth, feathers, fur and other matter. The owl’s gizzard compacts the indigestible material into a tight pellet that the owl regurgitates. Nature’s wonders come in many forms, including owl vomit. 

Species Most Commonly Found in Owl Pellets

What you can expect to find in an owl pellet varies according to where the owl lives, what prey is available, what time of year it is, and what type of owl is hunting. However, while the details may differ, there is one constant of an owl’s diet: small and medium rodents, especially voles. Voles are small, furry rodents that are also known as meadow mice or field mice, and they are the main dish on the owl menu, whether it be a barn owl or a great horned owl. A pair of studies on owl pellets showed that pine voles and meadow voles were the species most likely to be found during owl pellet dissection. So, while they may augment their meals with rabbits, birds, squirrels or other small prey, voles are owls’ bread and butter.

Pellets Can Be Full of Surprises

When dissecting owl pellets, it is very common to find the remains of more than one animal in a single pellet. Occasionally, owls will order off their standard menu and consume lizards, fish, frogs or whatever other amphibians of desirable size are available to them. Much more rarely, manmade materials are found in owl pellets, including small pieces of trash or, in a few cases, ankle bands from birds that were being tracked that had the misfortune of becoming an owl’s dinner. 

And sometimes, a species is found that stumps owl experts who know their way around an owl pellet. When a high school teacher came across one such case, it piqued her curiosity and she used her investigative skills to help identify the mystery animal:

“Good afternoon! I wanted to reach out and tell you about an exciting find in one of the pellets we purchased from Pellets Inc. One of my students discovered a species I could not identify (I’ve been doing this for 20 years and am pretty good at identifying species). I asked a group I am a part of on Facebook and one person responded, telling me to look for a dumbbell-shaped molar. It was there clear as day! It was a weasel! Thanks from Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore!”

—Allison White, Science Department Chair

Weasels certainly qualify as an exotic meal for just about any owl and a find like that brings excitement to owl pellet dissection. Tell us about your weird and wonderful owl pellet discoveries!

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