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Another Brilliant Design of Nature: Owl Pellets

November 13, 2013

Story at-a-glance

  • Have you ever heard of an owl pellet? Ever wondered what one is? Owl pellets are a brilliant design of nature that allows owls to eat their prey whole – bones and all -- and never suffer heartburn, indigestion… or worse.
  • Owl pellets are manufactured in the gizzard, which is one of two stomachs every owl comes equipped with. Once the pellets are formed from the indigestible pieces and parts of prey animals, they move in reverse through the owl’s digestive system and are ultimately regurgitated.
  • Dissecting owl pellets is a popular activity in grade school science classes. Students get a first-hand look at the tiny bits of bone, fur and feathers that remain from an owl’s prey.

By Dr. Becker

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never laid awake at night wondering about the origin of owl pellets. You’ve probably never asked yourself the question, “Just what the heck ARE owl pellets, anyway?”

And after I tell you what they are, you may never want to think of them again. But just for fun, let’s see if you can pick the right answer. Owl pellets are:

  1. Owl food
  2. Fossilized owl bones
  3. Owl vomit
  4. Owl poop

The correct answer is 3.

Owl Digestion 101

Owls, like hawks, falcons and eagles, are birds of prey. But owls eat and digest their food rather differently from other raptors.

Owls swallow prey whole or in big chunks, but their stomachs aren’t equipped with enough acid to break down bones, fur, feathers and scales. Since these undigested pieces and parts have the potential to damage the intestine, nature has designed an efficient method for handling undigested food – owl pellets.

Owls actually have two stomachs -- the glandular stomach, and the gizzard, which is very muscular. The glandular stomach produces the acids and other secretions necessary to break down prey into digestible and indigestible parts. The gizzard’s job is to grind up the meat.

Once the gizzard has processed the meat, the digestible portion travels into the intestine. The indigestible portion – bones, fur, feathers and scales – stays behind in the gizzard, which continues to grind and compress all these pieces and parts for several hours until they form into pellets.

Once a pellet is formed, it travels backward into the glandular stomach, where it remains until the owl’s body has completely absorbed all the nutrients from the food, which can take up to 10 hours or more. Once absorption of nutrients is accomplished, the pellet will continue traveling backwards and the owl will regurgitate it.

At this point, the bird is ready to eat another meal!

More Info on Owl Pellets

If by chance the topic of owl vomit has left you wanting more, I have another surprise for you. Did you know you can actually buy owl pellets online (from Amazon.com, eBay, Staples, and dozens of other suppliers) and dissect them to discover what’s inside?

If you have school-age children or you’re not too far removed from being school-aged yourself, you might already know this. Many school science classes offer kids the opportunity to dissect owl pellets as part of their study of owls. The students get to actually see the tiny bones, tufts of fur and other remnants of the indigestible portions of an owl’s meal.

As a special treat, here’s a quick video of a snowy owl actually regurgitating a pellet. (Note the impressive size of the pellet!)

 
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