Owl Pellet

Last weekend was a time for raptors at my suburban north Texas home. 

First of all, I unintentionally attracted a Cooper’s Hawk to my fence on Saturday.  I had refilled my bird feeder with fresh seed that morning.  Although I have my bird feeder situated in a rather protected area between my house and my neighbor’s, of course, hawks have incredible eyesight so the little sparrows, warblers and juncos fluttering about that morning definitely lured the predator in.  Fortunately, the hawk left without a meal from my feeder.

Cooper’s Hawk

Later that evening, as my husband and I returned home from a family visit, we noticed a spherical ball of fur lying on the stonework in our front yard.  Granted, we have problems with mice from time to time as do most of us in the north Texas area, so at first glance, I thought the ball of fur was a curled up, deceased mouse.  Upon closer inspection, it became apparent the egg-shaped item was an owl pellet.  I had heard of these pellets before but I had never come across one personally. **Before you read on, do not do so at the dinner table . . . save this post for a time you are not eating!

Owl Pellet

Pellets are the regurgitated, indigestible portions of a predatory bird’s diet.  Hawks, eagles, falcons, owls and some smaller birds create pellets.  The reason for this phenomenon is much more complicated than I can fully explain here, but what I understand is this: 

Raptors typically swallow their prey whole or in large pieces. Unlike most birds, these birds of prey do not have a storage place or “crop” in their digestive system that allows for the slow and complete digestion of fur, bones, feathers, shells, etc. Thus, the indigestible parts of mice, small birds, reptiles and insects must be expelled by the raptor to make room for it to comfortably eat again.  These indigestible items meld together to form what is called a pellet. Pellets are typically expelled 6 – 10 hours after a raptor has eaten prey. It’s not a pleasant thought, but I sort of envision this process as the same as a cat coughing up a hairball.

The size of the pellet I found in my yard was bigger than a large hen egg.  Because of its size, I’m quite certain it originated from an owl – probably one of the larger species found in our area such as the Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl or Barred Owl.  I’ve indeed heard the soothing sound of a Great Horned Owl once or twice in the night over the past few months, and, I’ve noticed we do not seem to have evidence of as many rodent visitors to our sun room as we’ve had in the recent past. I suspect the owl is getting its fill!

Bones Entangled in Fur of Owl Pellet
Another Close Up of the Owl Pellet

In fact, I’m sure the pellet I found last weekend was comprised of a mouse. I had posted about my find on social media and learned that oftentimes elementary school children dissect owl pellets in science class these days. As my curiosity grew, I decided to retrieve the pellet from my yard and dissect it. It had been raining when I found it so I had left it on the stone outdoors.

The pellet was much harder to dissect than I expected. The hair was tangled, matted and wrapped very tightly around some of the small bones. The hair was wound so tightly that I finally lost patience in trying to untangle it. I ended up carefully cutting the hair with scissors and slowly pulling the item apart.

I found a couple of jaw bones with teeth intact and what I believe to be a portions of a tiny skull. There were many other small bones that I couldn’t quite identify. After comparing my pellet picture with those I found online, as unbelievable as it is, I think the very curved bone in the bottom right of my pic below is an overgrown mouse incisor! The tooth is much larger than I would’ve ever thought for such a small mammal. I understand dissecting an owl pellet can be considered morbid but for me it was an extremely fascinating and educational activity.

Dissected Owl Pellet
skull portions-center; jawbone with small teeth-lower center; overgrown, curved incisor-bottom right

I’m probably a rare individual in that although I am very aware of their unsavory habits, mice and rats do not scare or disgust me. This doesn’t mean I welcome them into my home! In fact, I’m grateful for the natural predators in my suburban neighborhood that keep them in check. I suppose my statement earlier about it being fortunate the Cooper’s Hawk did not capture the warbler may be a little biased in the world of predator vs prey, especially when I am always rooting for the owl to catch the mouse.

However, rest assured, nature does not discriminate.

Until next time,

February 19, 2019

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