Owl Pellets: An Answer to the Question, “What Was for Dinner?”

Walking through the forest, especially under big trees, you might come across something rather interesting on the ground beneath you.  It’s pretty small and dark colored.  Maybe it’s a pine cone?  Looking closer, you notice this peculiar item is covered in fur, but is obviously not alive.  You poke it with a stick and notice it’s a little squishy.  Maybe it’s animal scat?  You peer even closer and notice that it might even have some small bones sticking out.  What you may have found is an owl pellet.

Owl pellet on the forest floor, photo by Jace Stansbury

Owls are a bird of prey, which means they hunt other animals.  They rely on their excellent vision and even better sense of hearing to locate a meal.  Their feet are armed with sharp claws, or talons, that latch onto prey.  Instead of having sharp teeth like mammal predators such as coyotes and bobcats, owls have a sharp, down-curved beak that helps them eat meat.

When an owl eats another animal it usually swallows that animal whole.  However, not every part of the ingested animal can be digested by the owl.  The second of two stomachs in the owl’s digestive system is able to separate the digestible parts from the non-digestible parts of their meal, which includes fur, hair, bones, and teeth.  These non-digestible parts are then packed tightly into a neat package inside the owl’s stomach and later regurgitated, almost as if the owl is throwing up.  Because the pellet partially blocks their digestive system, an owl usually can’t swallow new prey until it expels the pellet made from the last one.

Pellet_Philip R Brown
Small owl pellet, photo by Phillp R. Brown

What is so fascinating about owl pellets is that the bones inside them can be identified.  This helps us learn what owls like to eat!  Some things to look for in a pellet to help you identify an owl’s prey are the jaws of rodents, which should have the long (usually orange) front teeth, and bird beaks or feet.  Unless you can see feathers in the pellet, bones are typically the best way to identify their prey.  Other bones that can usually be identified include the pelvis, femur (upper leg bone), humerus (upper arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).

Jason Bottom
Rodent skull found in an owl pellet, photo by Jason Bottom

In the winter and early spring, a good place to look for owl pellets is under evergreen trees.  Why?  Because owls tend spend most of their time in evergreen trees in winter because they provide the best cover to stay hidden from other birds that might harass them during the day.  So the next time you are in the forest, be on the lookout for owls in the trees, and their pellets at your feet!

Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are the most common species of owl in New York State.  Snowy Owls, Barn Owls and even Great Gray Owls may be seen irregularity in New York as well.  More information can be found here.

Post by Elijah Kruger, State Parks

Featured image: Barred owl by Lilly Schelling, State Parks

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