Owl Pellets ... & Discovery Days

S.O.S. is pleased to announce the launch of its Owl Pellet Discovery Days, the first of which is next week on May 24th.

During the morning, youngsters can come along to the Suffolk owl Sanctuary, when they will be given a guided tour of the Centre, then do a spot of Owl supervised pellet dissection & detection, and finally be able to watch our 12.30 flying display. Each participant will be given a Pellet Discovery Kit comprising a large owl pellet, tweezers, prod, magnifying glass and information all about owls, their pellets and what you are likely to find inside them. The cost for each activity session, including all the above, is £6.50 per participant.

What is an Owl Pellet? Well, it's what is formed after an owl has eaten its prey (such as small mice and voles) and comprises the bits that cannot be digested, like bones, teeth, fur etc. The owl coughs out these bits in pellet form about six to eight hours after it has eaten and usually produces two every twenty four hours. The pellet must be regurgitated before the owl can feed again.

If you can't make it to the Sanctuary at Stonham Barns, then you may think about doing some detective work in the countryside by looking for owl pellets you can dissect for yourself. But before you start, a warning: along with other birds, owl nests & roosts are protected by law and it is illegal to remove eggs or young from them, or interfere with them or their nests & roosts in any way. So, if you do go looking pellets, please remember to leave anything that looks like a nest well alone.

Now, onto the search, and to begin with a little detective work may be required to discover if you have owls in your area. Firstly, look for the signs - perhaps take a quiet walk around the local park or recreation ground (but ensure an adult always knows where you are) and see if you can find where the owls roost or nest. Remember that a source of prey for the owls must be close by, as owls will only roost in an area where there is an abundance of small mammals to feed on. We suggest asking the park keeper or wildlife ranger if they know of any place where owl pellets may be safely collected.

Here are a few pointers. Barn Owls like to roost in old farm buildings or hollow, often derelict trees. Look on the side of the building or tree for white streaks, which are the tell-tale signs of owl droppings and usually indicate that they use the roost regularly. Now look below the roost site for small grey or black packages - these are the pellets. Barn Owl pellets are usually about 35mm - 65mm (1.5" - 2.5") in length, and are very smooth and round in shape. Should you be lucky enough to find one pellet at the site, then it is likely you will have found a regular supply
BUT please remember to respect the owls and indeed the owner of the barn.

Tawny Owls, which are the commonest of owl species to be found in Britain, are as happy living in country woodlands as they are in wooded areas near the hustle and bustle of towns, so whichever, you are most likely to have a Tawny Owl around if you are near an area with plenty of trees. Tawny Owls like to roost during the day close to the trunk of a tall mature trees or conifers, but they do not have singular favoured roosts and use any suitable perch to sit on and regurgitate their pellets. It's worth remembering that Tawnies usually produce their pellets usually while out hunting so although a common bird, their pellets
can be hard to find. It's worth asking local people if they have ever found pellets in their vicinity to speed up your search.

Tawny Owl pellets are much more furry than Barn Owl pellets and tend to taper off at one end. They measure about 25mm - 45mm (1' - 2") in length. They seem much less solid than the Barn Owl pellets and the contents can be seen easily within the mass.

Little Owls are our smallest owl and can often easily be seen during the day and at dusk. They like old dense hedgerows, trees in parkland and dead trees - their favorite roosts are in ancient Oak and Ash trees and they also like Willow pollards. As you would expect, the pellets are small, only 16mm-35mm (.75" - 1.25") long and are elongated with a distinct point at one end. They weigh very little, may feel spongy if pressed and are likely to contain insect remains such as wing cases. The pellets are produced out in the open while hunting, and so are likely to be stumbled on accidently.

Finally, Short and Long Eared Owls are rarely seen in the UK, and their pellets more difficult to find. The Short Eared Owl is best seen in winter months, when it hunts on salt marshes close to the mouth of estuaries and salt flats and the pellets are often deposited on the hard-to-get-at the grassy banks of a sea walls and estuary edges. Meanwhile the timid and well-disguised Long Eared Owl prefers to roost in dense thorny hedges, scrub areas such as tall bramble bushes on farmland and close to the edges of woodlands. Their roost sites can be used by up to ten birds, year after year, which means that lots of pellets are likely to build up over a period of time all in one place - a real find if you come across them!