Matt Originally posted on 12/26/02.
Related X-E Articles:
The Tiger Shark
The sea's most voracious eater is treated to an X-E tribute. Sharks are fun.
Ever wonder what these creepy spiders are really like? Read this article to learn the truth.
Some say that today's birds are actually the end result of dinosaur evolution. Archie's existence supports that claim.
The Praying Mantis
Now that you've read about the Mantis Shrimp, why not learn about its land-faring cousin? Praying Mantises are smiled upon, but make no mistake, these guys are deadly.
So, what did you get for Christmas this year?
Many of you have probably heard of owl pellets - some of you may have even experimented with them in grade school. For those who haven't, here's the lowdown: consider an owl pellet the poor man's dead frog. While it's far more the norm to dissect froggies in science class, there remains a substantial number of professors who refuse to put a schoolyear itinerary together that doesn't include making students play with bird vomit. Though ripping apart a frog provides a much more lasting impression, you can't deny the overwhelming sense of joy one feels as they're weeding through the various rat skulls and bug guts an owl spit up months ago.
No? Okay, maybe it's not fun. And yeah, it's certainly a tad disgusting. On the other hand, dissecting an owl pellet opens an interesting window into the lifestyles of these magnificent animals. If you don't believe all those nature shows, an owl pellet will give you clear and concise proof: yes, they eat mouse heads.
Before we begin, I guess I should explain what an owl pellet actually is. It's not really vomit, but when we're talking about disgusting animal crap that a bird regurgitates, it might as well be. Since owls aren't typically fond of digesting bones or fur, they'll spit out all those things after getting the meat down their throats. In effect, the process of spitting out these pellets saves the owls from unnecessary wear and tear on their stomachs and intestines, altogether helping them avoid the ultimate torture of trying to shit out the entire skeletized torso of a big nasty mole.
I recently received one of these owl pellet kits - the price seemed a little steep at ten dollars, but how could I resist? Sheerly on the merits of being able to tell people I handled a rat's ass bone, the price was worth it. I know this isn't the site's usual fare, but the end results were interesting enough to warrant exposing this phenom to would-be scientists and animal vomit enthusiasts everywhere. My apologizes if you were expecting an action figure critique or a story about the hairdos on Star Trek, but in this post-holiday lull, I just want to make the world a smarter place. Mostly by taking really gross pictures of what owls throw up.
Article continued below advertisement:
Visit our sponsors to support the site!
The kit came with a 9-page manual, written by someone who obviously felt very strongly about these pellets. It warns that your pellets might not have much inside them, depending on the environmental conditions near the owls who spit 'em up. Yes, believe it or not, building houses in forestal areas can have a serious impact on the quality of your owl pellet. It's a sad state of affairs and a terrible commentary, but life goes on.
For your convenience, the last page of the booklet displays a chart with all the different animal bones you might find inside the pellets. It's very important that you don't confuse a shrew jaw with a bird rib. Nobody wants to misrepresent an owl's diet. After sufficiently reading up on what I was about to experience, I felt confident enough to dive right into the rest of the kit, which includes some of the stranger things I've purchased in my time. Are you ready?
As you can see, this was ten bucks well spent. Aside from the manual, the lucky owner receives: owl pellets, a tiny magnifying glass, a large toothpick, a Tylenol cup, a piece of black display paper, and a pink stencil. The stencil includes shapes like hearts and stars, and apparently is an essential ingredient in any owl pellet kit. Hmm. You know, if you count everything aside from the pellet, the sum worth of what we have can't be more than a buck fifty. That means the owl pellet itself accounted for 8.50 of the total price. Now I admit, I'm a sucker for luxury items. Still, I never thought the day would come where I shell out almost nine dollars for a small pile of bird vomit. It's not the type of milestone I'm particularly proud of, but I lead a boring life and I'll take a landmark wherever I can find it.
With the giant toothpick, your job is to disassemble the pellets and carefully remove any bones you find. Wow, this is fun! I mean, you go through life with your monotonous games of Scrabble and Connect-4, while there's a perfectly marvelous game like "GET THE BONES OFF THE OWL THROW UP" out there waiting for you. It's tragic that the distributors of owl pellets can't afford the same level of advertising as larger conglomerates like Milton Bradley - the world's missing out on the real fun.
If you look closely, you should notice a claw protruding out of the mess in the above picture. You're technically supposed to soak the pellets in peroxide-tinged water to make the bone removal process easier, but that was about twenty times more effort than I was willing to expend on this project. Instead, I just threw a pair of hair dye gloves on, plunged my fists into the crap, and hoped for the best. Some of the bones did break under my carelessness, but all in all, any insatiable desire I had to fondle animal skeletons was finally quenched. Hooray for the owl pellet kit.
The set came with three similarly sized pellets, but I couldn't help noticing that they were somehow different from each other. Texture-wise, that's to be expected. If the owl ate rats, I'm sure its vomit would feel a lot different than it would had it eaten birds. Moreover, I'm talking about the color. Some of the pellets are pine green, others are a more Earthish brown. Try as I might, I couldn't come up with any good reasons for this. In my perfect world, I always assumed owl pellets would appear rather uniform. This whole changing colors thing threw me for a loop. After checking with the manual, I found out the truth. I kinda wish I hadn't...
Ah! So that's what it means. If the owl pellet is brown, it means the owl ate tons of earthworms. Oh, how I love to handle half-digested earthworm guts! Seriously - is it still Christmas, or what? The truth hurts. Actually, the entire paragraph I've scanned up above is disgusting. There's not one pleasant thing in there - from the worms to the Clorox to all the talk about protein glues, it's yucky all around.
Within minutes, I had been bitten by the Owl Pellet Madness bug and had fully dissected every pellet. I don't have many regrets about it, but I do kinda wish I hadn't done all of this on my dining room table. It's hard to eat Spaghettios right over the very spot where I once pulled apart owl vomit so viciously.
What you're looking at up above is mostly animal fur, plus a few bones that were too little or inconsequential for me to bother picking out. However, I got myself a pretty respectable helping of animal remains - enough to ace a science project or incant at least 4-6 voodoo spells that make people think they're fluorescent green goats. Here's some of the bones...
Pfft. Big deal. I see the same thing when I finish eating fried chicken. Let's delve a bit deeper...
Okay, that's better. Up above is a skull, complete with fractured jaw. But from what animal? That's the tough part. I know this might come as a shock, but it's not terribly easy to tell mouse skulls from mole skulls. I'm usually pretty good at that kind of stuff - I can tell white from bisque, Pepsi from Coke, Pacino from DeNiro - but try as I might, I can't identify these skulls without a little help. Thank God for the owl pellet kit manual!
After properly marking which bones came from which type of animal, I suddenly realized that I was caressing rat remains and owl puke and really, really wanted to stop. I put the 'keepers' back inside the box - what, you thought I was gonna throw the bones away? Hell no, you never know when something like that might come in handy. Of course, I sealed the box up with fourteen different types of tape and a padlock, because owl pellet odor isn't exactly up there with Lysol on the Scent Palatability scale.
On the whole, I'm not totally sure what to think about the kit. It doesn't teach you anything really groundbreaking, and the 'hands-on experiments' didn't amount to much more than running my fingers up and down dirty mole bones. Still, these aren't the type of kits a college-level science class would indulge in - they're more for the kiddies. Certainly a few steps down from dissecting a frog, but a whole lot easier and infinitely less messy. I still have nightmares about that lone dead frog's bladder spitting a mixture of piss and formaldehyde up at me.
The most interesting thing, in my opinion, is how far these kits go in ruining the whole mystique of the majestic owl. We usually think of the creatures in almost royal fashion. They're considered one of the most graceful entries into the animal kingdom, and are surrounded by so much lore ranging from luck to love and beyond. Knowing that they spend their time upchucking half-eaten rats when the cameras stop rolling sort of kills the magic. There's one more problem, too...
I've got this immense pile of animal fur. I have no idea what to do with it. Throwing it in the trash seems so disrespectful. I guess I could fill a silk pocket with it, add some lavender seeds and tell my grandmother I bought her a dream pillow. She'll think I'm being all nice and loving, when in reality I just get a kick out of the idea of her going to bed on a heap of thrown-up rat hair. If the plan works, I would've paid 50 bucks for this kit and still felt satisfied.
If you're interested in attaining your very own owl pellet kit, they're pretty easy to find. Consult a few science tool supplier shops, or school project stores. I'm not sure what a 'school project store' is exactly, but it sounded right when I typed it out and I refuse to go back and think of something better. Hey, I already spent an hour rummaging through dead animal remains. Haven't I suffered enough?