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An Owl’s Digestion Process

11-26-18 -barred owl coughing up pellet2 _U1A1839Most owls do not bother to tear small prey such as mice and voles apart but instead swallow them whole.  After eight to sixteen hours, all the nutrients available in the eaten prey have been absorbed by the bird.  Owls cannot digest the fur, feathers, bones, teeth and nails of their prey, so these parts remain in the bird’s gizzard (specialized organ that grinds up food in most birds but serves as a filter for holding indigestible parts in birds of prey).  This accumulation of indigestible parts takes on its pellet form (which is the shape of the gizzard) about eight hours after ingestion, but is sometimes retained by the owl for another six hours or so before being coughed up. As a rule, bones are on the inside of the pellet, and the fur and feathers form a soft coating on the outside.

The stored pellet partially blocks the entrance to the digestive system so it must be ejected before the owl can eat again.  This process takes anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.  The owl appears to “yawn” several times before regurgitating the pellet.  Note that the pictured Barred Owl has prey (a Deer or White-footed Mouse) in its talons, but out of necessity is getting rid of a pellet before devouring it.

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23 responses

  1. Alice Pratt

    I like the process that humans have, better, enjoying a meal by chewing and swallowing.

    November 26, 2018 at 8:25 am

  2. Kevin Ackert


    From: Naturally Curious with Mary Holland Reply-To: Naturally Curious with Mary Holland Date: Monday, November 26, 2018 at 8:12 AM To: Kevin Ackert Subject: [New post] An Owl’s Digestion Process Mary Holland posted: “Most owls do not bother to tear small prey such as mice and voles apart but instead swallow them whole. After eight to sixteen hours, all the nutrients available in the eaten prey have been absorbed by the bird. Owls cannot digest the fur, feathers, bon”

    November 26, 2018 at 8:35 am

  3. Marilyn

    Good shot! (Carpe diem.)

    November 26, 2018 at 8:43 am

  4. judilindsey


    How you get these amazing photos is a true wonder! That’s you! Wonderful!

    Judi 🙂


    November 26, 2018 at 8:51 am

  5. Peggy

    What an amazing photo! Thank you, as always, for sharing your knowledge and the results of your patience.

    November 26, 2018 at 10:15 am

  6. Pat Nelson

    Wow, Mary, what an amazing capture! First to see the owl, and then to capture it at this exact moment! I’m in AWE!

    November 26, 2018 at 10:52 am

  7. What a fabulous shot!

    November 26, 2018 at 11:06 am

  8. Holy ravioli! I’m so curious about how long you sat watching, before witnessing this moment that you captured for us with your camera. And in general, I’d be really interested if, sometimes, you felt like telling us some of the story that led up to a photo you share with us. Thank you, again, for offering a bit of wonder for me/us this morning!

    November 26, 2018 at 11:09 am

  9. Cindy

    Did the owl then eat the mouse it was holding?

    November 26, 2018 at 11:30 am

  10. Kathryn

    Probably a stupid question, but, does the owl also defecate or does this process take the place of that? I’m with the other comment – I like to chew and taste my food and never let it pass my lips again!

    November 26, 2018 at 11:38 am

  11. Kathie Fiveash

    What a great shot, Mary! On Isle au Haut, I often find pellets on the rocky shore made of broken shells, sea urchin tests, and occasionally bones. I read in Wikipedia after seeing your post that grebes, herons, cormorants, gulls, terns, kingfishers, crows, jays, dippers, shrikes, swallows, and most shorebirds cough up pellets. That’s most predatory birds. And for you squeamish folks, did you know that hares and rabbits eat their feces the first time through, and redigest them? Keeps them from being weighed down by large digestive systems. The little grassy pellets of poop you find on the lawn are the second coming of poop.

    November 26, 2018 at 12:42 pm

    • Alice Pratt

      It’s called ‘cecotropes’…really not gross, rabbits are’s filled with nutrients… rabbits (of course) did that…it’s an awesome ‘manure’ to add to any plants in your garden…especially tomatoes.

      November 26, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    • Yes, Kathryn, it defecates — the remains of all the parts of the prey it’s digested.

      November 26, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    • Thanks so much, Kathie!

      November 26, 2018 at 4:01 pm

  12. Jean Harrison

    I can’t believe you photographed at the moment of regurgitation with new prey in the talons. But seeing is believing. In your case. I trust you not to doctor and fabricate your marvelous photos.

    November 26, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    • Not to worry, Jean. This is not doctored, nor is the owl in captivity! He lives in the woods near my house and is a frequent visitor!

      November 26, 2018 at 8:30 pm

      • Alice Pratt

        You are so fortunate to have such an awesome frequent visitor, Mary! I love hearing Great Horned Owls at night, sometimes dueting.

        November 27, 2018 at 1:17 pm

  13. viola

    I knew about owls and their regurgitated pellets, but I did not know the details of the process. Fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing this as you do for so many natural phenomena, Mary.

    November 26, 2018 at 9:50 pm

  14. Diane Alexander

    I forgot to wish you and Todd Happy Anniversary! Hope that you both enjoy the day. My house smells sooooo good from the turkey carcass simmering on the pellet stove tonight. You were right! Is this aromatherapy? I think so!

    November 26, 2018 at 10:50 pm

  15. Deb Clough

    Wow! That is one of the most amazing shots I’ve ever seen!

    November 27, 2018 at 3:19 am

  16. Jane

    Is the photo of the owl available for purchase? I teach 4th graders about owls in 9 of our local schools. We dissect owl pellets. I would love to use this photo in my lessons since it is amazing to actually see it in action.

    November 28, 2018 at 7:38 pm

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