What do scientist and kids have in common?  They’re both endlessly curious and they both love disgusting things!  I’m here to make both groups happy today!  We’re going to answer the question “What do owls eat?” by dissecting owl pellets.  Keep reading to be both grossed out and fascinated!


Did you know owl pellets are just bone filled owl vomit?  Yep, they are!  Owls swallow their food whole and then regurgitate the parts they can’t digest, like the bones and fur. By dissecting this regurgitation, we can tell what the owl ate!  

If you’re fascinated by this process, but you don’t want to dissect a pellet, you can watch the YouTube where I dissect one.  It’s the best of both worlds; information without owl vomit!

If you are all in on dissection, keep reading and we’ll walk through the process together.

Supplies:

Owl Investigation Kit featuring an owl pellet, foreps, and an identification sheet
  •    An Owl Pellet Dissection Kit.  
    • I got a kit from pellet.com.  The kit I got came with 3 pellets, an identification guide, a small magnifying guide, and a forceps.  They don’t appear to have kits of that size right now, but I’m in contact with them to see when it might be back in stock.
  •   Something To Protect Your Surface-Optional
    • The pellets drop quite a bit of excess “stuff” as you remove bones.  You may want something to protect your surface if it’s not easy to wipe down.
  • Gloves-Optional
    • I wore gloves just to add an extra layer between my skin and the owl vomit, but it’s certainly not necessary.  

An Aside: Owl pellets are made in large part from fur.  This fur attracts moths who then lay their eggs in the pellets.  The pellets from pellet.com are heat treated to kill these eggs and make sure you aren’t inviting any unwanted guests into your home.

Let’s Start Dissecting!

Step 1: Gently Pull Part Of The Pellet Off With Your Fingers

A pair of gloved hands gently pulling off part of an owl pellet.

    Using your thumb and forefinger, gently pull off part of the pellet.  Roll that pellet chunk between your fingers, feeling for any bones as you go.  

Step 2: Use Forceps To Pull Out The Bone

    Once you’ve found a bone with your fingers, use the forceps to carefully tease the bone away from the pellet.  Once you have it out, set it aside to identify later.

Step 3: Keep Searching Until You Find The Skull

Gloved hands using forceps to pull a skull out of the owl pellet.

        Many of the bones in the pellet are going to look similar no matter what species they originally came from.  That means if we want to identify what the owl has ingested, we need to look for the skull.  In my case, there were actually 2 skulls in the pellet, so I got to do a comparison between the two, which was fabulous.

Step 4: Sort And Identify

Piles of rodent and shrew bones on a black background.  the identification sheet is next to them.

    Keep pulling parts of the pellet off and teasing out the bones until you’ve dissected the entire pellet.  Once you have all your bones out, sort them into piles of similar looking bones.  Match each of the bone types to your identification sheet as you’re able. It’s so cool to look at teeny, tiny mouse ribs and compare them to our (relatively) gigantic ribs!

A rodent skull and a shrew skull sitting on the bone identification sheet.

     Pull out the skulls.  Use your identification sheet to decide what kind of skulls you’re looking at.  Pay particular attention to the size of the skulls on the identification sheet, the shape of the muzzle, and the teeth.  Each of these provide clues that help identify what type of skull we’re looking at. In my case, I had a “rodent” skull and a shrew skull.  I identified them by size and by the top and bottom teeth of the rodent.

And that’s it!  You’ve dissected an owl pellet and identified what the owl had eaten.  What did your owl eat?  Let me know in the comments below!

This experiment was inspired by the book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. If you want more activities tied to Owl Moon, you can find them in my shop

And, for more picture book based activities, follow along, as we post a new activity every week!