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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bushcraft Babies; Owl Pellets

I know teachers shouldn't have favourite students but I do, my favourite students are my children. I love sharing bushcraft and the outdoors with them and I'm constantly thrilled by their fascination with nature and wildlife. 

One thing they particularly enjoy is a bit of nature detective work, working out what is inside owl pellets is an exciting piece of detective work for them to undertake. I ran a workshop on owl pellet dissection for children at the Wilderness Gathering a few years, owl pellets are fascinating and dissecting them to see what they have been eating doesn't just satisfy idle curiosity but is a method used by ecologists to study small mammal populations. The contents of an owl pellet can reveal not only what an individual owl has been eating but the rough abundance of it's prey. 

Although they get called owl pellets, pellets are not only produced by owls in fact a lot of birds produce them, certainly all birds of prey produce them and so do corvids. Just as cats produce hair balls as the indigestible fur they collect when they clean themselves is coughed back up birds of prey do the same, the hair, bones, teeth and other indigestible parts of their prey are coughed back up in compacted pellets. Typically we think of these pellets as compacted masses of hair and bones but jackdaw pellets are often just lumps of seed husks and beetle shells, little owls eat lots of beetles too and their pellets are often made up largely of  beetle shells. 

Short eared owl pellets are particularly large. You can see the bones and hair of it's prey here and a fragment of a voles jaw bone identifies at least one of it's recent meals. 
Teeth are particularly useful when it comes to identifying the contents of an owl pellet and the children love spotting the tell tale colours and patterns that help them identify what little mammals the owls have been eating. 

The broad skulls and 'zig zag' patterns of voles teeth give them away while the narrow pointy muzzles of shrews and their pointed red teeth make them obvious, a bit of judgement and a keen eye is required to tell the difference between, water, common and pygmy shrews. Their teeth really are red too, all the mainland UK shrews have red teeth, also as carnivores their teeth are pointed to deal with their insect diet. All the skulls above came out of the same barn owl pellet, barn owl pellets rarely contain mouse remains, as their diet is based largely on shrews and voles. 

I've always found that children are fascinated by owl pellets, my children certainly love dismantling them and investigating the contents. They have got very good at spotting what species of mammals the owl has been eating and even at what part of the animal the bones they find come from. 

The worksheet from our owl pellet dissection workshops allows the children to catalogue and identify what they have found in their owl pellets. 
If you ever happen to find an owl roost you will have a ready supply of pellets gate and fence posts are a good place to start for barn owls while the others are a little less predictable. Give it a go though, the looks of disgust from children as they decide whether they are looking at owl poo or owl  sick are worth it. 

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