I have had my two nieces staying with me and with the weather pretty dire outside, we needed an indoor activity. I have been waiting for some willing ‘volunteers’ to dissect some owl pellets with me and Poppy (aged 9) and Millie (aged 7) were very keen! I love doing activities like this with kids and plan on doing the same with my Wildlife Club at school in the new year.
I told the girls all about pellets and how they are formed… I had two avid listeners!! I explained that an owl swallows its prey whole. After each night’s hunting the owl regurgitates one or two black pellets containing the remains of the small mammals they have eaten. The owl cannot digest the fur and the bones of the animal it eats. All the goodness is taken out inside the owl and anything left comes out of the owl’s mouth as a pellet. The pellet is made up of all bones and fur of the owl’s prey, so we would be able to learn about the owl’s diet. The kestrel pellets I dissected earlier in the year had bones, but because the kestrel tears up its prey to eat it, you rarely find skulls.
I provided the girls with a bowl of warm water, with a little disinfectant in it, and then two BBQ skewers, which make excellent tools for teasing apart the pellet.
We poured the warm water over the pellet and let it soak in, to soften it. These pellets have come all the way from Heligan! The girls could not wait to start teasing them apart….
Within a few minutes, the pellet started to fall apart and their were excited discoveries….especially when we found our first skull! It was amazing! These pellets were absolutely packed with bones. In the UK the most frequently taken prey is the field vole, Microtus agrestis (also known as the short-tailed vole) usually forming between 40% and 80% of the diet. There is obviously a healthy vole population at Heligan, as the three we dissected each had three skulls in, representing three voles in a night’s hunting.
The girls were soon dissecting out lots of other bones too…. leg and ribs and even some vertebrae! The lower jaws are also great to find and can be matched to the upper jaws on the skull. Sadly the back part of the skull (where the brain would be) is so thin and fragile that that part rarely survives intact. You can find some of the plates that would have made up that part within the pellet though.
We must have spent about an hour dissecting these pellets and I wish I had got the digital microscope at home as they would have loved to have looked more closely at the skulls and bones they had found!. We cleaned up the skulls, carefully pulling the fur that was compacted inside them and then laid them out on the tissue to dry a bit.
Whilst they were drying, the girls were keen to write and draw about what they had discovered! They LOVED it! Poppy decided to do a cartoon all about a barn owl eating a vole and producing a pellet. Millie wanted to draw a barn owl and a bank vole…. these girls are STARS!!! .. I didn’t force them into doing this…. honest!