Tyto Alba Time Capsules – The joys of dissecting owl pellets! by Kate MacRae

Sixteen eager faces were fixed upon mine.
Sixteen young minds, waiting expectantly.
Sixteen pairs of young eyes yet to have seen the ghostly figure of a barn owl floating effortlessly over its hunting ground.

Sadly, I could not conjure up a barn owl for these children, but I could provide them with a wildlife experience that was likely to remain in their memory for many years to come.

I was in the Shetland Islands in Skeld Primary School. Many miles away from my own teaching location in the Midlands, this school was considerably different to my current experiences. Skeld Primary School consists of just 16 pupils…. all in one class. Their classroom views are of open skies and vast landscapes and most have never left Shetland.

Visiting the school for a morning, whilst guiding in Shetland, I was keen to share one of my most favourite teaching activities; dissection of barn owl pellets.
This is an activity I have undertaken more times than I care to remember in my 30 years of teaching, but every time it delights me as much as the children.

Barn owls are not found on Shetland and the children listened attentively as I described these stunning owls and showed videos of them. I shared images I had taken and tried to purvey the raw beauty of these birds.

Their interest and excitement was tangible as we watched clips of this silent hunter, that has a shriek that can strike fear into the heart.

We explored how owls fly so silently with feathers gently serrated, allowing airflow, and so soft that you can barely feel their presence against your cheek. The darkness is no barrier to this owl, as it finds its prey by sound alone, tumbling out the air, talons engaged, to grasp the vole prey that had been unaware of its approach.

I held aloft a large owl pellet, rounded and rough; a mini ‘Tyto alba’ time capsule of wonderfulness. The children were not yet convinced! Sure I was actually holding owl poo, their faces grimaced! I explained that this was not poo, but rather the owl’s way of getting rid of the parts of the prey that could not be digested. Bones and fur held no nutritional value to the owl, so this was compacted and ejected, as a rather wonderful owl pellet. This was more owl vomit, than poo….

What could be inside? What would this tell us about the owl and its diet over the previous 24 hrs? Interest was growing as the children gathered around.
We gently broke open the first pellet. Gasps of surprise and excited discussions ensued as the first bones became visible. I had them hooked! They were ready to discover the joys of pellet dissection!

For the next hour, the pupils dissected their very first owl pellet. The whoops of joy, at the discovery of the first skull, reached crescendo as more and more discoveries were extracted and they were keen to share their finds. This joy warms my heart every time.

Gradually, collections of bones and skulls emerged and were carefully laid out, like a strange burial ritual! The children were full of questions, as they identified and categorised their finds. Their levels of engagement and concentration confirmed their interest and excitement! From aged 5 to 11 years old, they were hooked!

Time was running out. Using black card and PVA glue, the children mounted their finds and laid them out for all to see. Full of enthusiasm and new knowledge, these young minds had been opened to one of the many the joys of the natural world.

These children may never see a barn owl hunting, unless they leave the shores of Shetland, yet they are blessed with a life surrounded by wild beauty. Their school views are of open skies and rugged shorelines. Their free time is spent with sea breezes in their hair and sand between their toes. My mind returns to the school where I teach. In land-locked Midlands, many pupils have never seen the sea or seen open vistas of wildness. They have the opportunity to see a wild owl, but I wonder how many ever have or ever will see one?

I hope that the work I do with children will inspire them to have a love of our natural world. I hope it will initiate an interest and fascination that will grow and develop. These young people are the World’s future and it is our job to show the joys of the natural world.

About the Entry

  • Blogger name | Kate MacRae
  • Site name | WildlifeKate
  • Site URLwww.wildlifekate.co.uk
  • Twitter @katemacrae
  • Facebook www.facebook.com/kate.macrae.75
  • Instagram | @thewildlifekate
  • Why should someone visit your site? From goldfinch to bullfinch, wood mouse to fox, you can watch the wildlife in my Lichfield garden, live on my website. My blog diaries my projects and experiences both in my garden and a 7 acre site that I manage for wildlife. I aim to excite and engage my audience to learn more about the natural wonders right on their doorstep and what they can do, in their own patch, to attract and support British wildlife.
  • Entry Number | 30

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