7.27.2014

Aww, cute little owl.... pellets

If you've ever seen an owl pellet, you're probably thinking "ewww" rather than "aww".  But hey, if I weren't up for a little grossness in the name of science, what kind of teacher would I be?

Actually, I love owl pellets. We dissect them every year during the last week of school during our study of habitats and life cycles. After all the yelling and gagging and other sounds of disgust are out of the way, the kids dig right in (literally) and end up loving every minute of it.

So what is an owl pellet exactly? A lot of people think it's owl poo. Wrong. I would not, under any circumstance, no matter how dire, handle owl umm... excrement. That would be crossing the line from dedicated teacher to crazy person.

Owl pellets are like big hair balls... the kind your cat leaves on your nice new carpet. Now let me reassure you, owl pellets may look nasty, but they are perfectly clean. Unless you have a large colony of owls in your yard, you will likely order pellets online from a company that collects, cleans, and packages them for you. They arrive sterilized and dried out. Not gross at all. Here's what one looks like...

Portrait of an Owl Pellet

Now, this is no ordinary hairball. Inside the owl pellet are all sorts of treasures and you never know what you'll find until you start digging. So get out your little skewers and start dissecting! Whatever the owl ate will be evidenced inside... moles, rats, insects, other birds... it's all right there. You'll find bones, fur, and even teeth. Quite fascinating actually!

Most companies that sell owl pellets will send along a handy bone chart for your students to refer to. They love figuring out what their owl ate. Here are some of my students working hard on theirs...


Don't they look studious? If you look closely, you can see the bone charts they used. I also gave everyone gloves to ward off any possible parent complaints.

This activity can easily span several days. I like to start by showing the class a wrapped pellet and having them guess what's inside. They NEVER EVER guess correctly. Then, we watch videos about owls and the food chain. You can find tons of them on youtube (don't forget to preview for appropriateness!) Just for fun, you absolutely MUST watch the Owl Pellet Song!

This year I also created an Owl Pellet Journal to use during our owl study. It has pages for students to complete before and during the dissection...

owl pellets
Owl Pellet Lab Journal

The dissection itself can take an hour or more, depending on how engaged your students are. I usually find myself having to make them stop because the bell is about to ring. If you've spent a few days learning about owls, the dissection becomes an exciting culminating activity!

If you decide to try this activity with your class, I recommend buying the largest pellets you can afford. The big ones run about $2 each. I have had good experiences with www.carolina.com and www.obdk.com.

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