Nature is full of hidden surprises, and owl pellets are one of them! If you know where to look and keep your eyes peeled, you can find your own pellets to dissect, or you can buy some that have been heat-sterilized. An owl pellet dissection lab is a memorable (and fun!) way to learn about the eating habits of birds of prey— birds such as owls that eat rodents and small birds.
What are owl pellets? They are the regurgitated remains of an owl's meal, including all the bones of the animals it ate (usually small rodents). Owls usually swallow their food whole, digest the edible parts, and then expel the indigestible parts through their mouth as a pellet. It might sound gross, but dissecting these is great fun for all ages!
>> Watch our owl pellet video to see what you can find inside!
What You Need:
- Owl pellet (or a more complete owl pellet kit)
- Teasing needle or probe
- Styrofoam tray or paper plate
- Forceps or tweezers
- Disposable gloves
(Safety Note: Most owl pellets you can buy are sterilized to kill bacteria, but take care not to dissect a pellet near food or put any part of it in your mouth. Use disposable gloves or wash your hands well after working with the pellet.)
What You Do:
Carefully inspect the outside of the pellet and note its size (and weight, if you can), whether there are any feathers visible, and whether there are any clues to where the pellet was found. Guess how many different animal skeletons the pellet contains.
Next, gently pull apart the pellet with tweezers, being careful not to break any of the bones inside it. Use toothpicks or a teasing needle to help separate the bones from the fur or feathers. Take special care when removing the skulls and jawbones, since they are the best way to identify the animals that the owl ate. Group similar bones together. When you've finished sorting the bones, roll the last bits of fur between your fingers to find little bones or teeth that might have been overlooked. Once you've found all the bones, try to reconstruct the skeletons of the animals.
Use an identification key to classify the bones. You can use this simple owl pellet bone chart for help sorting them. Owls usually eat more than one rodent before regurgitating the remains, so you should be able to find multiple bones that are similar. Can you distinguish between the bones of different kinds of rodents based on their size?
How many different kinds of animals did you find evidence of in the pellet? How many animals were there in total? What can you conclude about the eating habits of the owl that made your pellet?
If you want to keep the bones, you can soak them in diluted bleach for three minutes to whiten them a little (be careful not to leave them in too long!). Then you can glue them to a piece of cardstock for display.
Young Naturalist's Backpack Kit
Design your scavenger list with the ages of the participants in mind. Younger kids may get frustrated if the items on their list are too hard to find, while older kids will enjoy the challenge. If your group is well-suited to it, have a prize for the person who checks the most things off the scavenger list. (Here are some inexpensive science gift ideas.)
Have a manageable list for the amount of time you have to work with. If you only have an hour or two, just make a list of things each participant needs to look for. For a longer-term project, include things to collect, activities to do, and things to photograph.
Scavenger Hunt Ideas
The possibilities for a nature scavenger hunt are endless! The following are some ideas to get you started designing your own scavenger list:
Things to See
- Insects, such as a butterfly, dragonfly, grasshopper, and beetle.
- A spider web.
- Leaves from an oak or maple tree.
- Frogs, toads, and lizards.
- Wild berries (do not eat them unless they've been identified as non-poisonous!)
- Look carefully for something 'camouflaged,' such as a walking stick insect or a moth that blends in with its surroundings.
- Find feathers or abandoned birds' nests.
- If you're by the ocean, look for seashells and seaweed.
Things to Collect
- Pinecones, dandelions, seeds.
- Encourage identification skills by having the kids find different types of leaves or flowers native to your area. (Look for regional field guides in your local library or on enature.com, or do an internet search for the 'native plants' of your state.)
- Collect ferns, moss, pinecones, seeds, thorns, and other botanical specimens.
- Catch butterflies, capture a ladybug, dragonfly, or other insects, find a cocoon or chrysalis (see this article for butterfly-hatching instructions).
- Look for fossils, colored rocks, quartz, or flat skipping stones.
- Find a temporary 'pet,' such as a frog, snail, or grasshopper. (You should let them go after you've observed them.)
- If you live on the coast, include things like seashells, seaweed, small crustaceans, and small pieces of driftwood.
Things to Do
- Go wading, swim in a lake, climb a tree, go on a picnic.
- Draw a flower, make a dandelion chain, make a leaf rubbing.
- Get up early to watch the sun rise, write a description of a sunset.
- Go hiking, build a shelter, find your way with a compass.
- Look at pond water under a microscope, go stargazing with binoculars or a telescope.
- Record a birdsong or other animal sounds.
- Find a chrysalis and watch a butterfly emerge from it.
- Go to the zoo and have each child find a fact about their favorite animal.
- Keep a nature journal for writing descriptions of activities and drawing pictures.
Things to Photograph
- Birds at a bird bath, bird feeder, or bird house.
- Squirrels or other small animals.
- Animal tracks (if you have time, you can also make a plaster cast).
- Sunset or sunrise.
- Waterfall, mountain, boulder, lake, beach, or swamp (with someone in the picture!)
- A sibling or friend doing one of the activities listed under 'things to do.'
- Unusual sights like a tree root curled around a rock.
- The discovery (plant, animal, landscape) that amazed you the most.
If you're doing a hunt with a group, it's fun to make an open-ended list that allows the participants to be creative in how they interpret it. A few examples:
- Something beautiful
- Something scented
- Something old
- Something that floats
This kind of list is fun because each group will come back with completely different discoveries!
Make a Display
It's a great idea to keep a nature notebook with a record of everything you see on your nature explorations. Your notebook can include pressed flowers and leaves, pictures you took with a disposable camera, written descriptions, drawings, and more. Display three-dimensional objects in a display case or keep them in their own decorated cardboard nature box. Items such as seashells and rocks can make an attractive decoration in a glass jar. Insects can be pinned and labeled to be kept either on a piece of corrugated cardboard, or in a more permanent and attractive exhibit case. After hunting all summer, you should have quite a satisfactory collection!
Before setting out on a nature expedition, gather a few important tools from around the house:
- Plastic bags – bring home specimens without making a mess.
- Camera – take pictures of what can't be collected with a digital or disposable camera.
- Notebook and pens or colored pencils – make notes and drawings so you can remember what you see.
- Jars – transport insects and other small critters, or use to display rocks and shells
- Snacks, sunscreen, bug repellant, and hand sanitizer
You don't need lots of fancy equipment to observe nature, but here is a list of suggested tools to make your study even more rewarding:
- Insect net – catch butterflies and other flying insects.
- Binoculars – observe birds and squirrels up close.
- Magnifying glass – see the intricate details on insects, flowers, leaves, and more.
- Plant press – preserve flowers and leaves to mount in a notebook or use for cards or crafts.
- Field guides – get help identifying trees, flowers, rocks, birds, etc.
More Nature Projects
This site has step-by-step instructions for how to draw animals from insects to mammals – great practice for your nature notebook!
Watch animals you won't find in your back yard with the Smithsonian National Zoo's animal webcams.
A group of kids can have a blast outside with these nature-related outdoor games.
– As we know from the phrase “light as a feather,” individual feathers are light—but nearly a quarter of a bird's total weight is in its feathers. Sometimes the feathers weigh more than the bird's skeleton!
– A human has 7 vertebrae in the neck, but an owl has 14, enabling it to turn its head nearly all the way around to look for prey.
– The age of a mammal can sometimes be determined by looking at a cross-section of a tooth under a microscope. Inside a tooth there are annual bands that can be counted like tree rings!
– Some plants, like Venus flytraps or pitcher plants, actually capture insects and digest them for protein! These plants still perform photosynthesis to make their food, but they have to supplement with nutrients from insects.