Owls are majestic but also mysterious, not often seen because they are most often active at night.
The darkness of the night gives them good cover when they hunt for prey. Many of the owls that live in northern Illinois feast on rodents and other small mammals, but they also eat lizards, snakes and birds — sometimes even other owls.
Although owls are skilled hunters, they don’t chew their food well. Some owls, like barn owls, swallow their prey whole. Others rip it into pieces and swallow the large chunks.
Owls can’t digest all the parts of their food. What can be digested moves through their digestive system. The parts that remain, like fur and bones, are formed into a pellet that the owl regurgitates, or spits up.
People sometimes think owl pellets are poop, but the pellets are more like vomit than poop. They are similar to a hairball from a cat. The owls digest what they can of their food and spit up the rest, just like a cat spits up a hairball because it can’t digest all that fur.
Owl pellets are dark in color, almost black, when they are fresh. As they dry out, they turn gray. Owls aren’t the only birds that produce pellets from undigested food. Some hawks and eagles do too.
Owl pellets come in different sizes. Smaller owls, like northern saw-whet owls, usually make pellets that are less than 1 inch long. Big owls like great horned owls make big pellets, sometimes several inches long.
Pellets are often found on the ground under roosting spots. Owls typically produce one pellet a day. And because the pellets contain undigested parts of their food, you can often tell what an owl has eaten if you pick it apart and examine what’s inside.
One word of caution: You should always wear gloves when handling an owl pellet you find outside. The pellets can contain bacteria and viruses, so you should not handle it directly. You may have dissected a pellet at a school or nature program and not worn gloves. That’s because sterilized pellets can be purchased for this purpose.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.