Barn Owl Learning


Whew!  I pulled it off – a homeschool meetup with 18 kids (and assorted sibling tag-alongs) dissecting owl pellets.  With parental help, of course!   It was a wee bit chaotic, furry, and smelly.  But fun!  Lots of fun!

If you know anything about owls you might be asking why we were digging through owl puke – it’s science, people.  Gross science.  Which means most of the kids enjoyed it.

A teacher informed me this is generally a 3rd grade experiment, but we had a wide age range from 5-12.  They all did great!  Some of them even took their bones home to boil clean, much to their parent’s chagrin.

Please note!  Students with pet allergies may react to the pellets because of the fur.

The Kit

I put together a kit for the group instead of buying one, so I thought I would post what we used so that others could avoid spending $75 for a basic 15 pellet (size small) kit.  We pulled it off for about $5 per kid, which included a magnifying card and handouts.  I have to say, the large pellets are definitely worth the extra price.  Most of the kids found multiple skulls in their pellets – meaning multiple animals.  The skulls were hands-down the favorite part of the event!

What you need per kit:

  • 1 large owl pellet
  • 1 chart of common bones
  • 1 set plastic tweezers
  • 1 magnifying card
  • 1 tray for dissection
  • 1 poking stick
  • medical gloves (size extra small for younger children’s hands)
  • 1 small plastic bag for taking bones home
  • 1 large bag for containing kits
  • pipette (optional)

The group leader will also need to bring a few extra things:

  • paper towels
  • disinfectant wipes
  • trash bag
  • Adult sized gloves for the parents who help out

The tray was a Styrofoam plate from the dollar store, the sticks were cheap seafood forks (I couldn’t find bamboo skewers in time) and the gloves also came from the dollar store.  I did have to order the extra small size online for the little kids.  As a warning, plan to order owl pellets ahead of time due to potential shortages.

The Charts

Don’t pay the horrendous prices on Amazon for bone charts – I downloaded the free chart from Carolina Biological Supply Company because it was much better than the chart that came with the owl pellets.  Somehow CBSC managed to get the charts to almost accurate sizes, which made it much easier for my son to identify the bones.

Because I’m that super thorough we’re-going-to-squeeze-every-bit-of-learning-from-this kind of homeschooler, I also included a few information sheets and worksheets about the barn owl food web and adaptations.   We even covered lab safety and public speaking at this event!

The Format

After the gloves were painstakingly applied and before we unleashed the pellets, we had a quick talk about barn owls.  Very quick – they were impatient and raring to go.  I asked them a few questions and got them involved:

  1. Do owls have teeth?  (nope.  They swallow their food whole.  Slurp!)
  2. Can they digest the bones?  (no, their food digests in their stomach and the bones, fur, and feathers are compressed into a pellet and spit back up.)
  3. What do owls eat?  (rodents, small birds, small mammals, and sometimes snakes and lizards.)

After about 5-10 minutes of this, we handed out the kits and the kids dug in.  Lots of “ewww” and “gross!” went around, but there were fascinated expressions and yells of “I found a skull!”  They dug around for about 30 minutes – more time than I thought they would!

Once everyone was done and cleaned up, we sat down and went around the table to take turns saying each kid’s name and favorite bone found in their pellet.  I take every opportunity I can find to help my kids practice being comfortable with public speaking, and this was no exception.  Skulls won the day.

The Location

We reserved the community room of our local library for this event.  Any location you chose will need to have enough tables to handle the size constraints.  We ended up putting the kids on one side of a big U of tables, while the parents stood on the other side assisting as needed.

Because the community room is highly visible at the entrance of the library, we got a few weird looks and one potential convert to homeschooling.  Our local librarians were bemused and slightly overwhelmed when the entire group ended up in the children’s section afterwards!

This is one of those science things that’s more fun to do in a group.  The kids got to share what they found, talk about it, and spend time with their friends.  A homeschool win!

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