What Owls Eat

What Owls Eat

Her hands encased in purple safety gloves, Head Science Teacher Mary Ostrover pulled the foil off an egg-shaped bundle. As a section of Class 2 students watched intently, she held it under a magnifier so every detail was illuminated on the classroom’s white board.

“This is an owl pellet,” Ms. Ostrover told them, explaining that pellets are made up of undigested parts of an owl’s food that have been regurgitated. Although a few girls made “grossed out” faces, the class was clearly curious to learn more. (The other two sections of the grade participated in the lesson at other times.)

When Ms. Ostrover asked, “Do you want to see us open one up?,” a chorus of “yesses” filled the Lower School Science room. Carefully, Ms. Ostrover and Associate Science Teacher Rowen Halpin began to pull apart a pellet using plastic tweezers and wooden toothpicks.

Soon, the teachers uncovered a tiny white bone. But from what creature? With the help of an illustrated “bone sorting chart,” which was also projected on the board, the students were able to collectively identify this bone and figure out what protein comprised the owl’s meal.

They also discovered that owls, who are hunters, feast on rodents, shrews, moles and birds, and that those animals leave behind bones from their skulls, jaws, shoulder blades, front legs, hips, hind legs, assorted ribs and various vertebrae. Some animals also shed teeth and claws.

Next, it was the students’ turn to try their own dissections. After collecting the necessary materials from the front of the room, the scientists quickly settled around the tables. With paper plates serving as disposable work surfaces, they tackled their pellets with a mixture of verve and caution.

“It’s a little gross, but’s it’s also cool,” said Ms. Halpin. Students around her nodded in agreement.

As their teachers continued to circulate, the students poked and prodded with their tools, giving the hands-on task their all. “You’re being so meticulous,” Ms. Ostrover praised one investigator. “You could be surgeon one day.”

They yanked out tufts of soft fur before some encountered impenetrable matter deep in the pellets. Finding something large and especially hard might indicate a skull, the teachers reminded the class.

Indeed, several students unearthed skulls – belonging to rodents, they deduced – during the course of their examinations. Others were rewarded by equally thrilling treasures. “It looks like a tiny rat!” one exclaimed. “I think I might have a bird!” another added. “I found a whisker!” a third announced, holding up a coarse hair with the tip of a tweezer.

Once a bone was removed from the pellet, the students scanned their charts for an identical match. Then they taped the item on top of the appropriate line drawing. “Wow! It’s a rodent’s front leg!” said a delighted student, pulling a piece of scotch tape from the dispenser to secure the bone to the paper. “I found a vertebrae still connected,” added her classmate, showing off the impressive specimen.

The dissections progressed with much animated and productive chatter until a chime pinged, capturing everyone’s attention. Then an efficient clean-up time commenced during which bones not yet identified were placed in recycled envelopes; gloves, plates and toothpicks were tossed in the trash; the tables were wiped down; and hands were thoroughly washed.

For the final minutes of the period, the students had the opportunity to share with the full group. Guided by Ms. Ostrover and Ms. Halpin, they answered questions and talked about their experiences.

“I found a weird jawbone, which was bright orange,” a girl in the front contributed. “I found two skulls but no legs,” another commented, leading to an illuminating discussion about owl behavior that touched on topics including how mothers feed their young. “Part of her meal could have gone to her babies,” theorized Ms. Ostrover.

As this fascinating lab wrapped up, Class 2 was brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. Though they’d have the next class to complete their experiment, they were already one step closer to understanding the natural world, one owl pellet at a time.