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Compostable Dinosaur Dig – Owl Pellets!

Have you visited your local raptor recovery center? It would be a great outing over Spring Break and with our recent visit to O.W.L. with my son’s Grade 4 class, I discovered a new respect for an animal I already adore – owls. They have multiple superpowers (hearing in particular) and produce owl pellets – which are honestly one of the coolest science projects for children. They are like a dinosaur dig that you’d purchase at the toy store – you know where your child spends hours looking for the bones to complete a skeleton?  Only an owl pellet is made from all compostable materials and the different learning options for children are endless.  What is an owl pellet?  It’s a popular belief that they are owl poo (that’s what I thought). But they are actually regurgitated parts of non-digestible prey from an owl. An owl has the ability to unhinge it’s jaw (like a snake) when it wants to eat quickly. It is able to eat larger prey this way like a small crow, rat, mouse, rabbit, etc. Because owls have two stomachs, they take the nourishment of what they’ve just eaten, but then use the 2nd stomach to separate the fur, bones, and tail. Then they cough up an owl pellet (like a cat with a fur ball) in the form of a pellet. The largest pellets are roughly the size of a child’s fist, but they can be much smaller too – depends on the size of the owl. The pellet looks like a lump of mud or poo, but really it’s a ball of mostly fur and skeleton matter.

My son’s class dissected owl pellets last week and it was amazing! With 30 kids in the classroom, you would expect a few children to be whining or complaining about how ‘gross’ this project was.  Especially since after some pellets were dissected, there was a fluff of fur on desks that really resembled the prey. BUT – every single child in that classroom was totally excited and I only heard the words “COOL!” and “Look what I found” coming from desks.  My son was lucky enough to find two skulls in his pellet which was amazing because you can actually make out the eye sockets and the curved nose and front two teeth of the field mouse inside:

Each child in the classroom put newspaper on their desk with a brown paper towel for bone collection. If you are doing this project at home, also have tweezers and a ziplock back to collect the bones. A few of the children could identify the bones they dug out of the pellet – the skulls, vertebrae, and pelvis were exciting to find.

When each child was finished their dissection and collection, we simply rolled up the newspaper and pellet matter and emptied into the compost. It was just like playing with a dinosaur dig toy like you’d purchase at the store, except this one is actual bones and there is no plastic or packaging to worry about. Bones went into a ziplock bag with the child’s name so the next day they’d be able to try and piece together the skeleton. There are many printables online to help with this – here is an example of this exercise from a pellet dissection in my son’s class!

I can’t wait to find or purchase more owl pellets for all my children to experience this amazing activity!  Learning more about owls was very interesting and dissecting the pellets would be a memorable Spring Break activity.

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