Hoo barfed?

By Phil Plait | May 8, 2010 7:56 am

It’s Caturday, which on my blog I’ve expanded to anything I feel like in the animal kingdom. Last week it was owls, and this is a followup.

I talked about the Great Horned Owl babies we saw in a tree stump along a creek near our house. Well, after school this week The Little Astronomer and I biked over to check them out, and one of them was out of the nest! It was on a branch with one of the parents, and they were sharing a meal. I suppose the Elder Owl was teaching its young paduwan how to eat. I’m not sure, but from 20 meters away I definitely saw something nasty hanging out of the youngling’s beak. Bigger than a mouse, so maybe a rat or some other smallish rodent.

The other, smaller baby was still in the nest. Sometimes, the smaller, weaker chick is killed by its bigger sibling, but this one looks healthy enough, just a bit smaller. I expect it’ll be out of the nest next time we check on it.

I’ve noticed that one of the parent owls sometimes likes to sit on one particular branch of a tree across the path from the stump. It wasn’t there that day, so on TLA’s suggestion we went over and started poking around under the branch. After about a minute, she found what she was looking for: owl pellets. Owls eat their prey either whole or tear it into parts, but their digestion isn’t a complete process. A little while after an owl eats, it regurgitates a little bolus of bones, fur, and other indigestibles. Yum!

And did I say "small"? Yeah, not so much:

owlpellets

Mrs. BA and TLA dissected the pellet, and that’s what you see there (I looked it up, and it’s safe enough to do, though sterilization is usually recommended). The pellet is about 10 centimeters long, 2 wide, and grey. That’s pretty big for an owl! The ladies worked on separating out the various, um, things in the pellets. After some careful investigative procedures, they found these:

owlpellets_detail

The thing on the left looks like part of a skull, though it’s hard to tell. Eventually, TLA found a little jaw bone, but it was hard to tell what it used to belong to. Something rodentlike and small is about all we could say.

I’m pretty proud of her, I have to say. She enjoys science, though of course at school it sometimes can be a little dry. But on her own initiative she enthusiastically and excitedly pursued science out in the field. Yeah, I know, it’s a squishy science, but still.

It’s spring in Boulder, and the trees, flowers, and other assorted plants are in serious bloom and smell fantastic. If the weather’s nice, then I think another trip to the creek is definitely in order.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Science
MORE ABOUT: Mrs. BA, owl pellets, owls, TLA

Comments (43)

Links to this Post

  1. The Third Thursday is Upon Us… | Dr. Carin Bondar | September 16, 2010
  1. And on that note, I think I’ll skip lunch.

  2. We used to do that as kids. Well, some of us did.

    “Squishy” science is usually the kind that gets kids interested. It got this one interested, and he’s still interested to this day.

    Hoo’d have thought?

  3. Gary Ansorge

    Oh, knows, TLA has been corrupted by PZ.

    I always thought my kids would grow up to be physicists.

    My eldest is a business woman, my son is a software engineer(with Apple) and my youngest daughter is a veterinarian.

    Maybe we should have tried for a couple more,,,

    I’ve thought for many years, kids can get a whole lot more out of learning from their parents than they do from school. Too bad so many parents ONLY learned from school. Our educational system is still based upon the same approach used in every organized society for several thousand years,ie, “memorize this”. Whereas you’re teaching “Observe this, think about it and try to understand how it’s all related.”

    Good on Ya!

    GAry 7

  4. Hoo Barfed? I barfed! Ewwww! Oh well, all in the name of science!

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    Cool! :-)

    Nice post. :-)

    That’s the idea. Start ‘em young BA. I’m sure she’ll do great. ;-)

    Make sure you teach her the skies and constellations – but then I’m sure you are already onto that ‘un. ;-)

    @ 2. Kuhnigget : Hoo’d have thought?

    Good one. ;-)

  6. MichaelL –

    Did your kids go through it to see what was in there?

    TLA and Mrs. BA are pretty cool! Thanks for spending time with us a few weekends ago!

  7. Michel

    Good for them!
    I lived in a city (Amsterdam) when I was young, but still managed to take things like that home to disect. Though not the fish we caught in the canal in front of my house. They were foul. But nowadays the canals are much cleaner and you can see up to two meters into the water from a bridge.
    You would be really surprised what wildlife there is in a city. And the size of some of them…

  8. AlexB

    hey hey hey, im in squishy science, and its the best kind! (in my opinion)

  9. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE
  10. Chris

    I love owl pellets! such a neat item. I always try to keep and dissect ones I find. If you get them from smaller owls though you get a lot of bug parts too.

  11. Barneyj

    I threw up in my mouth a little. . . so I got to enjoy lunch twice. ;)

  12. @ Michel:

    You would be really surprised what wildlife there is in a city. And the size of some of them…

    Funny, I said the same thing the last time I was in Amsterdam.

    Whack! Ow!

  13. GP

    Owl pellet dissection was a standard curriculum item in Ontario – Grade 10 Science class.

  14. Woof

    Dagnabbit (!) BA, this is a travesty!

    It doesn’t matter that this is YOUR blog. I come here on Caturday to see CATS, not some silly over-evolved ex-dinosaurs. You wanna do OWLS, you can damn well do it on another day.

    So there.

  15. teridann

    I’ve been watching the owl box in San Marcos, CA for the last couple of months. There are 4 barn owls ready to getting ready to fledge in the next week or so. http://www.ustream.tv/theowlbox

    Owl pellets are pretty standard in science curricula starting in elementary.

  16. Michel

    @kuhnigget
    *grin*

  17. Daniel J. Andrews

    Based on the apparent size of that skull (if that is what it is–it does look like that to me), that critter was about grey squirrel or rat-sized. Depending on what is left, you can get an identification on the animal using skull and dentition keys. See Mark Elbroch’s book Animal Skulls, an excellent resource. And I may be remembering wrong, but the newest edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Mammals should have a key as well.

    You can use a pan of water to help remove some of the stuck on fur. You’ll also find numerous small teeth and bones hidden in the fur.

    I would be careful about handling owl pellets with bare hands. You’re usually safe, but you don’t want to be that one in who knows how many that picks up an inconvenient pathogen or parasite. Many science classes have students wear latex gloves even though the owl pellets have been sterilized and wrapped in tinfoil.

    btw, you and Mrs. BA sound like great parents!

  18. Joey Joe Joe

    WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ASTRONOMY???

    This is an astronomy blog. I open it to read about astronomy and see awesome pics.

    If you want to talk cats or owls please start another blog.
    The people who want to hear your zoological opinions can read about it there and the rest of us won’t be subjected to it.

    PLEASE!

    ;)

  19. duxallinarow

    I think “Hoo barfed?” would make an awesome t-shirt.

  20. jcm

    Shouldn’t Mrs. MA and TLA be wearing gloves?

  21. Justin

    We did this on a field trip to a nature preserve when I was in middle school. I thought it was pretty fun. Mine had most of a vole

  22. shawmutt

    Ah, the memories…I kept a mouse skull for a while after dissecting one of these in high school. Stupid principal made me throw it out.

  23. Harvi

    We got to dissect owl pellets in school.

    I’ve never found them in the wild, though. Awesome for your daughter!

  24. James

    ” This is an astronomy blog.”

    No, this is Phil’s blog. He just happens to talk about astronomy occasionally.

  25. Allen

    There’s no better way to spend a weekend than playing with owl pellets.

  26. JohnW

    Sometimes, the smaller, weaker chick is killed by its bigger sibling

    Jeez, and my little sisters thought they had it tough.

  27. Zach

    “Many science classes have students wear latex gloves even though the owl pellets have been sterilized and wrapped in tinfoil.”

    As someone who’s taught this lab to college freshmen, the gloves are simply because most students are disgusted at the thought of touching an owl’s indigestible meal remnants. There’s really no reason you need to wear them.

  28. Kimpatsu

    Sounds like a hoot.
    Ha ha ha!

  29. I remember dissecting owl pellets in school. I think it was 7th grade, but could have been 8th. I didn’t find it gross at all, but then I never really had trouble with biology. I’m kind of amused by how many people find this gross, because it’s pretty much the least gross kind of dissection possible. No soft tissues!

    I think it is SO awesome that you did this with TLA. Everyone should have a dad as cool as you.

  30. HD

    You horrible monster! You disgust me! Padawan is NOT spelled “paduwan”.

  31. mike burkhart

    I once bought a female hamster.The pet did not know it was pregnet when they sold it to me .She gave brith to 7 baby hamsters the next day.It was interesting watching moma hamster takeing care of the babys .One thing I learned is mother hamsters are busy hamsters.Like with human mothers it a big job beeing a mother hamster.I bet it is for the owls to.

  32. Joey Joe Joe

    @24

    No, this is Phil’s blog. He just happens to talk about astronomy occasionally.

    I was joking ;)

    (Unless of course, you were joking too, in which case disregard this :P)

  33. Bad Albert

    This is an astronomy blog.

    No, no. For astronomy you want the Bad Raptor blog. Please update your browser bookmarks. :)

    P.S. I was just using this opportunity to test if HTML tags work on this host.

  34. One Time, One of My Hamsters had 12 Babies, Most I’ve EVER Seen One Successfully Raise …

    Once, One of them had 14, But Only 11 Survived The First Day, to Later Grow to Adulthood!

    Speaking of Which, Most Raptors Lay Either 2 or 3 Eggs …

    So, Even Money Says; If there’s Two of them, Now, they May ALREADY have a Dead Sibling!

  35. Sili

    One of the projects I ended up supporting on Donors Choose was for a batch of (autoclaved) pellets for a class.

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    @28. Kimpatsu Says:

    Sounds like a hoot.

    Good one. LOL. :-D

    @ 14. Woof Says:

    Dagnabbit (!) BA, this is a travesty! It doesn’t matter that this is YOUR blog. I come here on Caturday to see CATS, not some silly over-evolved ex-dinosaurs. You wanna do OWLS, you can damn well do it on another day.

    Hey, there’s no reason the BA can’t post about *both* cats & owls – perhaps even in the same article with sufficent ingenuity. (Eg. owl versus cat?)

    Incidentally, both the owl and cat are “ex-constellations” : star patterns that were proposed and used breifly but didn’t make it into the eventual 88 official IAU listed ones. Which is a shame really methinks.

    See :

    http://www.pa.msu.edu/people/horvatin/Astronomy_Facts/obsolete_pages/noctua.htm

    & http://www.pa.msu.edu/people/horvatin/Astronomy_Facts/obsolete_pages/felis.htm

    The latter link incl. probably the weirdest looking cat drawing I’ve seen in a lo-ong time. ;-)

    BTW. Off topic but I’ve finally finished reading Lovell’s Apollo 13 & have just read that 13 things that saved Apollo 13 linked & noted the other week :

    http://www.universetoday.com/2010/04/08/13-things-that-saved-apollo-13/

    .. &,well, I was wrong Nunki (or Sigma Sagitarrii) & the spotting thereof was NOT one of them after all. Oh well – great article & thanks for mentioning it BA. I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. :-)

  37. MadScientist

    Just don’t invite Adam Savage over or the next thing you know they’ll be polishing the owl pellets.

  38. Woof

    Messier Tidy Upper:

    Hey, there’s no reason the BA can’t post about *both* cats & owls – perhaps even in the same article with sufficent ingenuity. (Eg. owl versus cat?)

    Sorry… that was supposed to be funny. My bad.

    MadScientist:

    Just don’t invite Adam Savage over or the next thing you know they’ll be polishing the owl pellets.

    Now that was funny!

  39. @Barber of Civilty,
    See there’s this thing called a “Sense of Humor”. I was using that when I made my comment, and why, yes, I have poked through Owl poop as a matter of fact! I used to take my kids to a camp in Alberta, and the naturalist would lead nature walk, where we were told to look for owl Poop, and see what was in it!
    :)

  40. dragonet2

    If Kansas City has more wildlife than I can describe here (our city founders made sure there were tracts and lanes of parkland even through the most populated parts of the city) I have no doubt Boulder has lots more.

    I have seen: deer, raccoons, opossums (duh), foxes, skunks, a wide variety of birds including raptors, and things like tree frogs inhabit our neighborhood.

    When we first moved here, I thought it would be good to feed the feral cats that we had a lot of then. Until I came home late one night and the ‘world’s fattest opossum'(tm) was chowing down on the bowl. When I yelled at him, he showed all 50 bazillion teeth, I got the broom that lives on our porch and shoved him off the porch. and stopped putting cat food out.

    At our own house, in the Hyde Park part of KC,MO, we have a barn owl that uses the corner of our house as a perch some nights. We find pellets and poo on the deck under that corner and I’ve examined the pellets.

    Really kewl.

  41. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 38. Woof

    Sorry… that was supposed to be funny. My bad.

    No worries. That’s what I figured too. Looks like we both forgot our “joking” emoticons conveying the “tone” there. Which is unusual for me. ;-)

    Besides it gave me a chance to mention my two fave “ex-constellations” so all good.

    @ 40. dragonet2 : *Only* the pellets? ;-)

  42. Yo!

    lol
    At first glance, that pic with the tray looked like you were breaking up a bunch of weed, it still does if I don’t look close enough.
    I saw the pic before I read anything and I was wondering why he would be talking about pot!
    lol

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