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Owl Pellets

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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Feathered Fishermen

4-24-17 barred owl IMG_8141

Using their keen eyesight and sense of hearing, Barred Owls typically sit and perch on a branch, surveying the ground beneath them for whatever morsel appears, small mammals and birds being at the top of their list during the winter, with more emphasis on amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates during the warmer months.

Several times I have observed a Barred Owl taking advantage of a vernal pool that was teaming with life, specifically Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers. Perched in a nearby tree, the owl kept an eye out for any sign of movement in the water.  When ripples appeared near the shore it would swoop down to the water’s edge in an attempt to grasp a frog with its talons. Although it met with repeated failure, success was inevitable due to the plethora of distracted mating frogs.

Because they lack hair and feathers, frogs may be underestimated when scientists dissect owl pellets to see what Barred Owls eat. Given the frequency with which I have observed these feathered fishermen, I would think that might be very likely.

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Contents of One Barred Owl’s Stomach

11-7-14 vole, shrews and mouse 027Fantastic guesses, given you had no measurements to work with. Very creative, indeed. Yesterday’s mystery photo was a packed version of the bodies displayed today.

Owls swallow small prey, such as mice and voles, whole, while larger prey is torn into smaller pieces before being swallowed. Once eaten, prey goes directly into the owl’s stomach, as owls have no crop, and thus no ability to store food for later consumption.

Like other birds, owls have a stomach with two chambers — one is the glandular stomach, or proventriculus, (yesterday’s mystery photo) which produces enzymes, acids and mucus and begins the process of digestion. (Because the acids are weak, only the soft tissues are digested.) The second stomach is the muscular stomach, or gizzard, also called the ventriculus. The gizzard lacks digestive glands – it serves as a filter, holding back bones, fur, teeth and feathers that are difficult to digest. The soft parts of the food are ground by the gizzard’s muscular contractions, and allowed to pass through to the rest of the digestive system.

Several hours after an owl has eaten, the indigestible parts remaining in the gizzard are compressed into a pellet the same shape as the gizzard. The pellet travels back to the proventriculs and remains there for up to ten hours before being regurgitated. Because the stored pellet partially blocks the owl’s digestive system, new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet is ejected. If more than one prey is eaten within several hours, the remains are consolidated into one pellet. (In this case, one very large pellet!)

Update: I left the contents of the deceased Barred Owl’s proventriculus outside last night, and a resident Barred Owl recycled the Meadow Vole and Masked Shrew.

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Snowy Owl Pellet

3-25-14 snowy owl  203Your knowledgeable ID skills regarding yesterday’s Mystery Photo were most impressive!

Snowy Owls are the heaviest owls in North America, weighing roughly 4 pounds (a Great Gray Owl is only 2.4 pounds). A lot of fuel is needed to power this magnificent raptor. In the Arctic, where they live, lemmings are their preferred prey — one owl may eat more than 1,600 of these small rodents in a single year. This winter the Northeast has experienced record numbers of visiting Snowy Owls. A banner year for the Arctic lemming population followed by prolific nesting success for Snowy Owls resulted in an unprecedented “irruption” of these owls further south this winter.

While we do have lemmings in New England, they are uncommon, so Snowy Owls have relied on our small rodent, squirrel, rabbit and hare populations for food. Those owls wintering on the coast, where dunes and moors closely resemble their tundra habitat, have also taken advantage of the large number of sea ducks. As witnessed and described by Nantucket ornithologist Edie Ray, the owls fly up to great heights over the sea, spot waterfowl and then plummet down to just above the surface of the ocean where they sink their talons into a “sitting duck.” As a result, the indigestible bones, teeth and nails of prey are protectively wrapped in feathers as well as fur in the large pellets coughed up by these owls. (Snowy Owl locators: Edie Ray and Sadie Richards; Snowy Owl pellet finder: Sadie Richards)

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