How to Identify Owl Pellets

How to Identify Owl Pellets
Owl pellets are bundles of indigestible material regurgitated by the bird after its gizzard processes the usable parts of prey. While other birds like hawks commonly produce pellets, those of owls are usually larger, with more bones and other remains visible.


Difficulty: Moderate

Things You’ll Need:
  • Magnifying glass Tweezers Latex gloves Owl prey reference chart
  • Magnifying glass
  • Tweezers
  • Latex gloves
  • Owl prey reference chart
Step 1
Look at the habitat where you found the owl pellet. While there is much overlap, different owl species favor different landscapes: Great gray owls haunt deep, dark conifer woods in mountains and boreal zones; barn owls more typically frequent mosaics of fields and woodlot. A pellet found in an urban area, such as a city park or cemetery, might belong to a species tolerant of humans, like the great horned owl, a near-ubiquitous denizen of all sorts of North American habitats.
Step 2
Consider the pellet's size. Again, there is too much variation within species to make this a firm measure, but larger owls will generally produce larger pellets. Nonetheless, pellet size does relate somewhat to that of the prey being eaten and owls eat a variety of sized animals, from insects to big waterfowl and skunks. Also, note that owls, when disturbed, may eject larger, rougher pellets than normal, as they haven't had time to be fully compacted.
Step 3
Make note of other characteristics, like color and consistency, in the context of size. Horned owls often eject large, firm, cylinder-shaped pellets, while elf owls---many times smaller and insectivorous---leave drier, loose pellets of tiny dimension.
Step 4
Dissect the pellet and look for prey remains, using tweezers, a magnifying glass and gloves. You might find husks of insects in the pellets of smaller species, like screech owls. Many medium- to large-sized owls target rodents and shrews. Great horned owls, the most formidable and opportunistic of North America's species, are the most likely culprits if bone bits of larger animals are discovered.

Tips & Warnings

As owl-pellet dissection is a very common and widespread component of science education, look for related curriculum materials in libraries or on the Internet for additional help. Many resources are available for identifying the bones of prey encased in owl pellets.
Always wash your hands and take other hygienic precautions when handling owl pellets.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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