If you've ever seen an owl pellet, you're probably thinking "ewww" rather than "aww". But if I weren't up for a little grossness in the name of science, what kind of teacher would I be? Every year, I do an owl pellet dissection lesson with my students and it is AMAZING! They get so much out of it and are always so excited to go home and tell their families what they learned.
What exactly are owl pellets?
An owl pellet looks like a yucky ball of fur, similar to something your cat would throw up. But an owl pellet 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.
Like all birds of prey, owls swallow their food whole. This includes small mammals like moles and rats, insects, even other birds. Whatever the owl ate will be revealed inside each individual pellet. You'll find bones, fur, and even teeth - all of the indigestible parts of the owl's diet that don't make it through the digestive tract. It's all right there in the form of a pellet. Quite fascinating!
Owl pellets look a lot more disgusting than they actually are...
Are Owl Pellets Sanitary?
So yeah, owl pellets look really gross. But unless you're outside hunting for fresh pellets in the woods, they are totally clean and safe. The owl pellets that you buy for educational use have been sterilized in the same kind of machine doctors use to sterilize their instruments. Any bacteria or parasites that might once have been there are long gone. The pellets are also completely dry. There's nothing wet or sticky about them.
That said, I still suggest giving your students disposable gloves when doing an owl pellet dissection. Most kids are initially grossed out by the pellet and will be wary about touching it. Also, gloves will ward off any possible complaints from parents. If you don't want to buy plastic gloves, your school nurse probably has enough extras laying around to donate a box to your class.
PREPARING FOR YOUR owl pellet investigation
This activity can easily span several days. The first thing I do is show the class a wrapped pellet and let them guess what's inside. They NEVER EVER guess correctly. And I don't tell the answer right away. I just say, "Nope," and set it aside for another guess later. It drives them crazy!
Next, we watch videos about owl habitats and the food chain to learn some background information. You can find tons of them on youtube (don't forget to preview for appropriateness!). You can also have your class do some research to find out what types of local owls are in your area. Just for fun, you absolutely MUST listen to the Owl Pellet Song!
I like to have my class complete an All About Owls Interactive Reading Activity to integrate reading into this science lesson. All of this builds interest and gets them excited to learn more!
Before you being, you'll need to gather some supplies:
paper plates (to use as a work surface)
little wood skewers (toothpicks are too fragile)
the gloves I mentioned earlier
You'll also want to have some owl pellet bone identification charts. These are a must! Kids love figuring out what their owl ate by comparing their bones to the pictures on the worksheet. Most companies that sell owl pellets will send along some charts too. But if they don't, you can find free ones online. Here's a very nice one from NatureWatch: Printable Owl Pellet Bone Chart
I give everyone an Owl Pellet Lab Journal which lets them document their learning. (It will also give you something to grade if you want.) Then, we get started with the real action.
HOW TO DISSECT AN OWL PELLET
Give everyone their supplies - gloves, bone chart, wood skewers, plate, and a wrapped single pellet
Have students place the pellet on their plate, gently remove the foil wrapper, and observe the exterior of the pellet.
OPTIONAL - You can bring a spray bottle full of water to dampen the pellets. This makes them easier to dissect, but also creates more mess. I usually skip this step.
Give the students plenty of time to slowly pull apart their pellet with the skewers. They should remove chunks of hair bit by bit until they find something of interest.
Once a bone, tooth, or other item is pulled out of the pellet, students can set it aside to compare to their bone chart.
I always remind the kids to work carefully because they will be finding a lot of fragile bones. If they are too rough and start chopping the pellet apart, the tiny bones can break into small pieces. This makes it very hard to tell what kind of animal the bones came from. I've had students find an entire skull with jaw bones intact. It's amazing!
The dissection itself can take an hour or more, depending on how engaged your students are. If you've spent a few days learning about owls, the dissection becomes an exciting culminating activity! They usually have so much fun that I have to make them stop because we're going to run out of time. After we've cleaned up, I like to create a graph or data table on the board showing how many bones of each type were discovered. This gives the kids a chance to talk about what they found and what types of animals their owl may have eaten. They are always so excited at this point that you need some discussion time.
I always get at least a few students who ask to take their bones home to show their parents. If you want to allow this (which I do), it's best to send them with clean bones. This is easy to do. Just put a bit of hydrogen peroxide in a cup and let the bones soak for a little while. Then lay them out on a paper towel to dry. At the end of the day, I let the kids put them in a plastic sandwich bag to take home. If you have small lidded jars (like baby food jars), they work even better for keeping the little bones safe.
Where Can I Order Owl Pellets for the Classroom?
If you decide to try this activity with your class, I recommend ordering the largest pellets you can afford. The biggest ones run about $2 each. I have had good experiences ordering from www.carolina.com and www.obdk.com. This past year I bought them from Amazon: Large Barn Owl Pellets
Before you order, just make sure it states the size of the pellets you'll be getting. You don't want tiny one inchers. Also, check to see if they include skewers or dissection sticks and bone charts. Finally, don't forget to ask if your purchase is sales-tax exempt since you are buying for a school.
Some websites sell an entire owl pellet kit that comes with disposable dissection tools, but the cost usually ends up being too much for an whole class of students. All you really need are the pellets. You can supply your own sticks or skewers and print your own owl pellet dissection chart.
Another idea is contact local nature centers. If they have a large population of owls, it's possible that they may sell pellets.
Dissecting owl pellets is a fascinating project - truly one of the most interesting science activities you can do with your students no matter what grade level you teach. It's something they will remember for years to come. I've even had former students come back to visit and mention how much they loved doing it. If this isn't something you can do with your class for whatever reason (no school budget money left), you can watch this virtual owl pellet dissection from the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
An Owl Pellet Lab Journal is a great way for students to document their observations during your owl pellet dissection: