Warning: you are about to read (and see graphic pictures!) about a messy and possibly stomach-churning science project that is typical in our house:). If indigestible fur and bones in the form of owl pellets is too much for your morning coffee, stop reading now!
Nothing thrills a parent or teacher more, than hearing your kids get really excited about a project. We recently invited a bunch of friends over to learn about owls, and dissect owl pellets, which my kids said was both gross and cool at the same time. The buzz in the room, that grew exponentially louder the deeper we got, turned into shrieks of excitement as kids made more discoveries. Here’s how we had fun learning about owls.
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Before starting, I did some research about owls. Owls are fascinating birds that can be found on every continent, except Antarctica. They are usually nocturnal, and fall in the category of “raptors:” birds of prey, who are powerful hunters with incredible eyesight, and strong talons and claws. Like other birds, owls cannot chew their food. Because of this, they either swallow their prey whole, or tear apart larger prey into smaller pieces. Their stomach has 2 parts: one for digesting the soft parts (the meat) of their food, and the other part (the gizzard) filters the insoluble items such as bones, fur, teeth and feathers.
After eating, these indigestible parts are compressed into a pellet that is later regurgitated once the owl is ready to eat again. If the owl eats more than one prey item within several hours, you will find various remains in a single pellet. I had ordered our owl pellets at Acorn Naturalist, along with a “Bone Identification” sheet of possible remains we might find. They come dried, wrapped in foil, and ready to dissect for about $3 each with shipping.
We set up 2 tables: one for the girls, and another for the boys (per the kids’ requests:). I laid down some newspapers, gave every child a pellet a bone ID graphic, and we started to talk about owls. We read a couple of books (see the references below), and finally we began to dissect the pellets!
There are 2 ways to dissect the pellet: you can either gently pull it apart dry (as we did), or you can soak it in warm water (which wets and softens the fur in the pellet and gets a bit messier).
It is tightly wad together with a lot of fur, and a *ton* of different bones. The idea is that the kids slowly and carefully pick through and remove the tiny bones. Using the identification chart, they are able to piece together the owl’s meal. We found quite a few leg bones, pelvis bones, skulls, etc. It’s obvious that the owls had eaten more than one type of rodent, and in one pellet we found 4 skulls!
The kids were really engaged, and literally screaming as if they won the lottery every time they identified a bone. We had laid out tweezers, forks, popsicle sticks, and a myriad of other tools, but found that the kids mostly would pull out a bone with their fingers, and then place it in the tweezers carefully to show us:). We had them match up the bones on their charts- which even the youngest (age 4.5) were able to do!
It was a fun, hands-on science project that helped everyone learn about the food chain, while practicing observation and classification skills. I highly recommend it for nature lovers!
Science Books about Owls for Kids:
Owls: A Wildlife Handbook by Kim Long includes color sketches of the 19 species of owls in North America. The kids will enjoy the information about each owl such as their favorite foods, their habitats, how they hunt, and where they live in N. America. There are some myths and cultural history about owls included as well.
Owls (Animal Predators) by Sandra Markle is an excellent resource for kids. Each page has amazing photographs of owls throughout their life cycle, in their natural habitat, with typical behaviors and actions shots. This book does talk about owl pellets!
Owls by Gail Gibbons. I love Gail Gibbons- she is an excellent author for kids because she understands what they are interested in, and writes clear, non-fiction books that are packed with labeled illustrations and facts to get kids excited about exploring science and nature. This book discusses the owls life cycle, its habitats and behaviors, and environmental threats to certain owls.
Extension Activities after Owl Pellets & Resources to Learn about Owls
* The biggest environmental threat to owls around the world is loss of habitat, due to land development and timber harvesting. Brainstorm with the kids on ways people can help in the conservation of owls.
* Most owls are at the top of their food chain (aka food web). Observe these food chains, and then draw your own, based on the remains found in your owl pellet.
* Hear the calls of all species of owls! Memorize the calls of the owls that live near you, and then take a night hike with your kids. Can you identify any?
* World Owl Mythology: Extend your knowledge of owls to include cultural references from around the world. World Owl Mythology is a compilation of beliefs and legends about owls from many different countries. What is fascinating is that some culture revere and honor owls, who bear good fortune to their people; other cultures believe owls are bad omens, linked with destruction and evil.
* On FirstPeoples.org, you can read the Legend of How the Coyote Joined the Dance of the Burrowing-Owls. the Eskimo Story of Owl and Raven, and a Choctaw legend of Why the Owls Share. Another site has the story of Why the Owl has Big Eyes.