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What is an owl pellet? | Are owl pellets poop?

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

If I find an owl pellet on my bike... do I have a pellet-on bike? 🥁


I just wanted to make the pellet-on joke (ya know, like the Peleton bike). I do not have much unique information to share. But you might learn something...

A Northern Saw-whet Owl spits out an owl pellet.
Owls, like this Northern Saw-whet Owl, regurgitate pellets of inedible prey parts.

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Is an owl pellet poop?

No, that little ball of fur, bone, and other random bits did NOT come out of the business end of an owl. At least not the cloacal business end. So no, an owl pellet is not poop. It has not been fully digested (clearly), nor has it made it to the colon of the bird! It reached the gizzard, the edible pieces continued their path, and the remainder of the consumed organism was formed into a tight ball and regurgitated. Which makes the owl pellet…


What is an owl pellet?

If an owl pellet is not poop, that does not leave many options for what it IS. (There are only so many holes in an owl.) An owl pellet IS the regurgitated inedible bits from captured prey items like mice, voles, rats, rabbits, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. The owl will rip and tear small pieces of its prey off, swallow them whole, and then continue to shred another piece. Why does an owl eat the whole piece? Owls cannot easily separate edible and inedible pieces from their small foods without teeth and opposable thumbs. To compensate for these deficiencies, it leaves eating the organism whole or ripping it up and eating the torn pieces whole, including the fur, feathers, bones, and more.


While regurgitation might not seem better, it does beg the poll question. Which is worse, vomit or feces?

Which is worse?

  • Vomit

  • Feces

Regardless of your choice in the poll, you are now informed about what an owl pellet is! Hooray!

A Burrowing Owl spits out a pellet!
A Burrowing Owl spits out a pellet!
Owl pellet and Burrowing Owl.
Look closely, there is a pellet on the ground in front of this Burrowing Owl.

How are owl pellets formed?

Birds have multiple stomachs and a crop. When an owl swallows its food, the item first passes into the crop. From the crop, the food continues into the proventriculus. This stomach is the glandular or chemical stomach. Acids and primary digestive enzymes begin the breakdown of materials that can be digested and absorbed. This is usually the soft tissue of the prey species. After spending time in this stomach, food and non-food parts continue into the gizzard. The gizzard is the physical or muscular stomach of birds. Here, soft tissue continues its dissolving process. After soft tissues have passed on to the intestines, the gizzard begins its physical effort. The fur, bones, and other pieces are pressed together, forming into an orb-like structure. After formation, it moves backward through the digestive tract, through the proventriculus, crop, esophagus, and out of the mouth.


Blech.


Okay, okay. Owls do not make that sound when ejecting a pellet. Just Zach after he eats an onion.


What types of owls are used for owl pellet dissection?

When you purchase owl pellets from a distributor, you are likely getting pellets from a captive Barn Owl or Great Horned Owl. The prey will not be too varied, so expect primarily small rodents to fill the pellet. This can still be an exciting set of bones to pick from, so do not be discouraged by captive birds being the source of pellets. If you want to find pellets with a more significant potential for unusual bones, consider finding some wild owls in your neighborhood, park, or town! I have a guide for finding owls, so give it a quick read! Great Horned Owls will have the greatest range of prey items. Find a Great Horned Owl roost, and you might have a long-term supply of owl pellets. However, these will not have undergone a sanitization process. Read the next section to learn how to make wild pellets safe.


How to do an owl pellet dissection at home or in a classroom

Dissecting owl pellets is like a treasure hunt. But like any proper treasure hunt, you need the correct tools to make it efficient, educational, and safe! Okay, so not a treasure hunt. I do not think anyone considers pirates efficient, educational, or safe. I think you understand my point. You are digging for buried treasure. Where the treasure is bones, and the sand is fur. Or maybe you are digging for knowledge and appreciation of the natural world? I am not good with analogies.

 

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Need a field guide to owls? Here is my favorite!

 

Below, I will provide some basic elements of what you will need to conduct a proper owl pellet dissection at home or in a classroom! I will also answer frequently asked questions about owl pellet dissections.

An owl pellet found on the ground from a wild owl.
An owl pellet found on the ground from a wild owl.

Is an owl pellet safe to handle?

If you have purchased your owl pellets from a reputable source, then yes. Sourced owl pellets have been sanitized in an autoclave or another type of heat-generating machine to kill all germs that might have been lurking.


BUT


If you picked up your owl pellets from wild birds, they are unsafe to handle, especially for children. You will either need gloves or you will need to sanitize the pellets yourself. If you choose to sanitize the pellets, read the next section for instructions. No matter which type of pellet you choose, always wash your hands after dissecting an owl pellet.


How to sanitize a wild owl pellet?

If you have your own wild provider of owl pellets, purchasing pellets from captive owls may not pique your interest. Instead, you will need to kill the viruses and bacteria hosted on the wild pellet. To do so, there are two methods generally accepted. The first step in both is to tightly wrap your owl pellet(s) in aluminum foil. Then, you will need to place the pellets on a cooking sheet and place them in the oven. Once ready, proceed to bake the pellets at 250 degrees F for 4 hours OR at 325 degrees for 40-60 minutes. Either time and temperature should be enough to clean your pellet for safe handling.


Do I need gloves to handle an owl pellet?

If you follow the above instructions, gloves are not essential to an owl pellet dissection. However, if you are picking up owl pellets in the wild, wear gloves to keep yourself and others safe.


What materials are needed for an owl pellet dissection?

If you are dissecting at home, most tools for this activity are likely already available in your home. If you do not want owl regurgitation touching your tweezers, etc., then pick up some cheap spares of the following:

  • Pellets

    • If you are a class or group, reach out to your local Audubon about financial assistance in purchasing a classroom set of pellets

  • Paper or washable plates or trays

    • Dissect on this

    • I like the linked tray above for sorting bones and pieces

  • Tweezers

    • Use to help grab small bones carefully

  • Ziplock bag or black construction paper

    • Separate bones into the bag or onto the black construction paper

  • Large toothpick or skewer

    • Helps to pick apart the tougher parts of the pellet

  • Magnifying glass or microscope

    • See your bones up close

  • Lysol wipes

    • Quick clean up

An owl pellet kit being used in a dissection
Owl pellet kits usually come with everything you might need!

If you do not know your small mammal bones by heart, then you might also need some bone identification guides. There are several free options available around the web.


HOWEVER


If you want the do-it-all kit, those are also available! Many organizations make a DIY owl pellet kit, and here is one of my favorites. If you need a complete classroom kit, this is a classroom set with TWENTY pellets plus all the tools and handouts you will need! There are multiple pellet sizes. I always recommend medium and large-sized pellets. They are easier for students to work with, and they hold more bones… usually.


Now, all you need to do is crack open your pellet!


Steps for dissecting an owl pellet

Dissecting the pellet is not very difficult. The greatest challenge is likely just the identification of the bones. With that in mind, here are some steps to help your dissection go smoothly.

  1. Set up all tools, plates, and bone collection materials.

  2. Have a cup of water nearby to soften the pellet.

  3. Place your pellet on the tray and open the foil.

  4. If the pellet is very hard, use fingers to drip water onto the pellet.

  5. Begin picking the softened pellet pieces apart, or break the pellet open with your fingers.

    1. Beware! You might damage bones if you break the pellet with too much force.

  6. Collect the found bones in the zip lock bag or on a dark piece of paper.

    1. This helps keep the bones organized.

  7. After collecting several bones, begin the identification of bones.

  8. For fun, attempt to assemble a 2D skeleton.

  9. Discard bones and excess materials.

  10. Clean up!


Do other birds create pellets?

A Forster's Tern regurgitates a pellet of fish scales and other parts.
A Forster's Tern regurgitates a pellet of fish scales and other parts.

Owls are not the only food-projectile-creating birds! Many species of birds will eject pellets when they ingest hard, inedible food parts. Tough, inedible items for birds might include scales, bones, arthropod carapaces, and seed shells. Waterbirds that eat fish and crustaceans, flycatchers that eat arthropods, and diurnal raptors that also eat small animals are all types of birds that I have been fortunate enough to witness a pellet ejection occur from!


 

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