The dissection of owl pellets can be a great science lesson for kids. Not only will they learn about owls, which are fascinating creatures, they will also learn about the prey that they eat.
This lesson can lead to discussions about the food chain, predators vs prey and habitats. My kids thought this project was awesome albeit a bit grotesque.
What is an owl pellet?
While some people think that owl pellets are poop, it is actually the mass of undigested parts of a bird’s food that some bird species occasionally regurgitate. The contents of a bird’s pellet depend on its diet, but can include the exoskeletons of insects, indigestible plant matter, bones, fur, feathers, bills, claws, and teeth.
Owls swallow their prey whole. By dissecting an owl pellet, you can see exactly what was on the menu.
What you will need to dissect an owl pellet:
Paper plates or a small tray
Dissection tools/ tweezers
Magnified glass (optional)
Tablecloth or newspaper
Preparations for dissecting owl pellets
This project can get a little messy so you will want to use a tablecloth or some newspapers. I set up each child with a paper plate, owl pellet and dissection tools. If you don’t have dissections tools, you can just use tweezers. To clean them when you are done, just boil them or wipe them down with rubbing alcohol.
My kids wanted to wear gloves doing this, but you don’t have to. Owl pellets that you purchase will have been sterilized. If you find an owl pellet outside, it should be cooked in the oven first in order to kill any germs. Just wrap in aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for a half hour to kill any living organisms.
Have the kids very carefully pull the owl pellets apart. You want to be gentle because the tiny bones inside are very delicate. I would also recommend having a bone chart so that they can identify the bones and figure out what animal the owl ate.
Most owl pellets will be from barn owls feeding on rodents found around a farm. Their prey could be mice, rats, voles or moles. It is also interesting to see how many animals are in one pellet. We had a pellet with three skulls in it!
While the kids worked, I played recordings of owl calls from a video I found on youtube. I also read them a book about owls.
There are two different techniques for dissecting owl pellets. You can pull apart the dry owl pellet or soak it first. Soaking the pellet is believed to loosen up the material and make it easier to dissect. We tried both ways and didn’t like soaking them. It was very smelly and made an even bigger mess.
I didn’t know how my kids would take this experiment, but they were laser focused on the task at hand. Harry, age 7, found every last bone hidden inside.
As an additional project, I have seen people puzzle piece the bones back in order. The bones can be glued on a piece of paper to create a skeleton.
Books about owls
To build off this lesson, I had my kids read a few books about owls. Here are some books I would recommend:
I also found a sticker book called Learning about Bird of Prey. The kids designed an owl habitat and added the stickers.
Owl pellets for sale
You can purchase owl pellet dissection kits on Amazon by clicking here. This kit will come with everything you need including the pellets, tools and bone chart.
Dissecting an owl pellet can make a great unit study for homeschooling or just as a supplemental science lesson. They could also be great for cub scout groups.