Owls are among the birds that are permanent residents in much of the United States. They are nocturnal, but even if you’ve never seen one, you’ve probably heard one. “Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo” hoots the great horned owl (whose “horns” are really tufts of feathers). “Who cooks for you all?” cries the barred owl.
You can find where owls live by looking for their pellets. Because birds have no teeth, they swallow their food whole. For owls (and other birds of prey) this means bones and all! What these birds can’t digest they eliminate. Instead of passing this hard matter through their intestinal tracts, it is coughed up out of their beaks as pellets.
Pellets vary in size and shape from species to species, but most are oblong, with bits of bone, fur and feathers sticking out. Fresh pellets are covered with a slimy mucus (all the better to slip out with!); weathered pellets are dry and hard. Look for pellets at the bases of trees, and in barns (where barn owls live).
Dissect a pellet to find out what the bird has been eating. Break one in half and soak it in warm water until it loosens up. Pour off the water and pick the pellet apart with a toothpick or a darning needle. Can you identify any of the tiny bones?
[Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Kasey Smith]