Owl pellets provide chance to study dead stuff

Owl pellets provide chance to study dead stuff
John C. Lorson

The small animal remains found in a single owl pellet give a clear indication that this particular bird (likely a barred owl, given the location of the pellet) was happy to partake of both small mammals and arthropods alike. Several sets of crayfish pinchers were found alongside a number of different skulls, bones and insect wings.


There’s really no delicate way of putting this, so I’ll just come out and say it. You can learn a lot about the natural world by looking closely at dead stuff.

Alright, now that I’ve lost half of my crowd, we can get down to the gruesome details without fear of offending anyone’s delicate sensibilities.

Centuries ago, as the New World and even more far-flung lands were being discovered, claimed and colonized by explorers from the Old World, collections of flora and fauna native to those lands were gathered and sent back to the homeland by sea on months-long voyages. There they were identified, studied and classified by the great educated minds of the day.

Specimens needed to be preserved in some manner for the long voyage, but choices were limited. Whole carcasses of smaller animals or birds were sometimes dried, but more often than not, the creatures were reduced to “study skins” or dried pelts, which often included the hollowed-out skull so teeth and bills could be examined. Few things tell you more about what an animal does for a living than the shape of its bill or the structure of its teeth. Sometimes, however, this primitive taxidermy left out parts of the animal that could have offered important clues about its lifestyle.

One rather extreme case of this slipshod taxidermy involved the very first skins of a bird-of-paradise that arrived in Europe from the South Pacific aboard one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships. The birds had been “preserved” by the islanders by wrapping a feathered skin, complete with skull but little more, around a dried stick. For whatever reason the native “taxidermists” failed to include the feet of the birds. This led astounded scientists to declare a whole new classification of bird, even going so far as to grant it the name Paradisea apoda, which is the Latin for “footless bird of paradise.”

Many specimens never even made it back to civilization, succumbing to neglect, decay and sometimes even consumption by shipboard rats! Imagine, however, the sheer amazement of those long-ago naturalists when a new, previously undiscovered specimen like the unimaginably exotic bird-of-paradise arrived in their lab.

Thankfully, collection and delivery of interesting creatures has come a long way, and more importantly, an emphasis on simply observing and recording creatures in their natural habitats has won out over killing, dissecting and dry-mounting every new creature that is found. That doesn’t mean, however, there isn’t still a lot to learn from the dead. And although computer-driven virtual reality is now making it possible to “dissect” a frog in a high school lab without having kids glove up, take scalpel in hand and gag over the smell of preservative, there’s still something to be said for at least a tiny dose of the real thing.

To my way of thinking, one of the best ways on earth to introduce kids and adults alike to the nuts-and-bolts study of deceased critters is the owl pellet.

An owl pellet is both a study in raptor ecology and lesson in small animal skeletal structure. Owls tend to consume their prey — which consists mostly of small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and the like — in a few big gulps.

Equipped to kill quickly with their talons and maybe a sharp tear at the throat with a sharp bill, the birds don’t waste time disassembling their prey like the hawks or eagles you’ve watched shredding rabbits, squirrels or lesser birds to small, bite-sized pieces. Instead the owl lets its digestive system do the work of gleaning the valuable protein and fat from the carcass of its prey. When that process is complete, the nonusable parts are expelled from the bird in a “pellet,” which the bird gags back up.

Owl pellets can be found at the base of trees where the birds nest or perch and are typically about the size and shape of a human thumb. Often cast in a “mousy” gray color, the pellet may at first seem to consist largely of fur, but packed within are the skeletal stories of everything the bird has recently eaten.

Gently pick apart the owl pellet with tweezers and you’ll find remarkably intact skulls, teeth, pinchers and tails of everything on the owl’s menu. The truly curious (like me) will then attempt to re-assemble and identify those critters, simply because there’s a lot to learn by looking closely at dead stuff.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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