This is a good year for barn owls (Tyto alba). Currently there are six barn owls living in our barn near Lookout CA/Modoc County. (I could not convince them to all sit together for a portrait.) The abundance of owls means more owl pellets on the barn floor. That will make Josh, The Owl Man, very happy. Josh makes a living collecting owl pellets. Every few months he will come by and collect all the owl pellets from the barn floor. He lives about two hours from our ranch, but has regular collection routes visiting barns where he has permission to collect. We always have a nice chat when Josh comes by and over the years we have become friends.
Owl pellets are oval, often furry objects scattered on the ground below where owls perch. (Many birds other than owls form pellets, including other raptors and herons.) The shape and texture of the pellet depends on the species of bird that produces the pellet and the prey that was eaten.
Owls swallow their prey whole and do not tear it up. Owls do not have a crop. The food passes directly to the gizzard where digestive juices and small bits of gravel and sand dissolve the usable tissue (muscle, fat, skin, internal organs). The indigestible, sharp parts of the prey (fur, feathers, bones, claws, teeth) are formed into an oval mass known as a pellet or cast. The pellet reaches its final form a few hours after eating, but is not usually ejected immediately. Instead the pellet is stored in the first chamber of the digestive system (proventriculus) for up to 20 hours before it is disgorged with a coughing motion, usually while the owl is at rest. The pellet partially blocks the esophagus while in the proventriculus so must be regurgitated before the owl can eat again.
Josh sells the barn owl pellets he collects to a company that heat sterilizes the pellets, wraps them individually and sells the pellets for classroom activities or other scientific purposes. Barn owl pellets can be purchased for around $3.00 each. Owl pellets provide information about the owl’s lifestyle: what it eats, where it roosts, the species of small mammals nearby and even the relative proportions of those mammals.
In my next post I will look at an owl pellet more closely.