Fun with owl pellets, and a motley crew develops naturalist’s wings.

Another installment in my progress as a Maine Master Naturalist Tier 1 student.


My owl pellet was 2.25 inches in length and weighed .4 oz.

My owl pellet was 2.25 inches in length and weighed .4 oz.

“Dissect an owl pellet, separate and identify bones, and build and label a skeleton,” was one of the assignments due this week.

“Piece of cake,” I thought, remembering seventh grade biology and all the dissections we had done. Earthworms, starfish, some cricket-type thing—they reeked of formaldehyde, and it was probably my favorite class.

I was pretty excited about the owl pellet. I had my nifty dissecting kit, a chart of bones, was happy to relive seventh grade, and was ready to go. This had started out as a project with my two podmates. (A bit about how the MMNP—Maine Master Naturalist Program—is organized. We are divided into groups of threes. I call our group a pod, and each group has a mentor. I’ll bet all the mentors are great, but ours not only sends us copies of lost homework lists, but fills us with confidence when we flounder, is amused when we want to be amusing, and even answers silly questions, without pointing that fact out. All the MMNP mentors are volunteers. This is a huge time commitment for them, as well for us. They are amazing, and I want to be one, but owl pellets first.)

Different schedules and locations made our meeting up and doing this pellet dissection together too complicated, so it was every man for herself.

I asked my office co-workers if they had done an owl pellet, and two of the three (all under thirty) said yes, that it was a fourth-grade lesson.

Fourth grade? I regretted going it alone, but that was reassuring. I checked out a few YouTube instructions, weighed and measured my pellet, pre-soaked it, clipped my work lamp to the dining room table and started to poke with the teasing needle. This turned out not to be YouTube simple.

First off, I did not like the smell of wet, regurgitated fur. Give me formaldehyde, please. Some sources said wear gloves, others said don’t wear gloves since the pellet is sterile and it is impossible to feel the little bones if you are wearing them. I started with gloves, and when my hands were sweaty and hot and I unintentionally broke a tiny bone, I pulled them off.

The sorting tray

The sorting tray

One hour and forty-five intent minutes later I had a pile of fur, and a few piles of loosely sorted bones. No feathers, or bird bones, which did make sorting easier.

I had lined a tray with freezer paper. It was white so the bones stood out, and it was not absorbent, so it would be easy to pick the bones up with tweezers. They were sorted and lined up into major groups, and I’d have moved on to sorting more specifically, but my husband (I have one, since I’m not a fourth grader) was insisting I wrap it up for the night. I pulled a length of plastic wrap off the roll and prepared to cover my bones. The plastic got within an inch of the tray, and I am sure there is a law of physics to explain this, but the tiny bones flew through the air adhering themselves to the clear film in a chaotic whirlwind. I tediously pulled them off, put them back in the tray, and covered them with paper towel. I’d sort them again later.

Night two of pellet project

I had my small portable lightbox set up, with a diagram of a vole skeleton taped to it. My pellet had three voles, and a few caterpillar cases, but no birds or mice. If you really want to know, my pellet had: 3 vole skulls, 6 mandibles, 7 scapula, 37 ribs (partials and entire), 48 metatarsals and metacarpals, 2 hips. 6 femur, 6 humerus, 6 radulus and ulna, 5 tibia, 1 sacrum, 25 unidentified bones and bone bits, 26 possible vertebrae, 1 piece of straw, 3/4″ long, 3 caterpillar larvae, and 16+/- caterpillar droppings.

I first organized my bones, and when I realized there was no way I could distinguish a metacarpal from a metatarsal, I lumped them together. I was not happy about this, and envied that fourth grade mind that could do it, but plowed on.

I used tweezers to place my bones roughly where they belonged, and got out the special dries-clear, archival, medium-dry-time glue. I lifted the jawbone, and squeezed the glue bottle to put a drop of glue on the paper where the mandible went. It was just a gentle squeeze, but the glue was not in the spout, and a blast of air came out, scattering those tiny bones that had briefly looked like a skeleton to the edges of my tray. My patience was being tried, and I decided I was impressed with all the nine-year-olds who do this.

My vole, nothing to be proud of.

My vole, nothing to be proud of.

My vole is assembled. It keyed out to be a Mictus oregoni. I do not love my tiny bones glued to a board, and, not that fourth grade efforts should be sneezed at, it looks rather like something a fourth grader would do. I expected more from myself.

There are nineteen of us in this session of the MMNP program, and I have checked in with a few others about their rodent assembly. Not one has shirked the project, but no one has claimed to love it. At the beginning of this program I did wonder if I would stick it out. It is not a class for those who just want to be fed information. But since I generally do stick things out whether I like them or not, I figured I’d be there till the end. Now I know I will go though withdrawal when it is over, it has become so woven into my life.

I had expected some attrition, however, having attended many adult ed classes and extension courses where the student numbers dwindle week by week, leaving the dedicated diehards. Our band of aspiring naturalists is blooming and blossoming, turning more and more into, yes, naturalists. Tom, a physician, never drew. His journals now have detailed illustrations of the insects he is catching in a pit trap. They would be respectable in any professional publication.

Page from Tom Adam's journal

Page from Tom Adam’s journal

We begin to toss out Latin names without feeling self-conscious, it is just  easier to communicate that way. When Edwin shared a photo of the auditory bulla (a bony structure that encloses parts of the ear) from his owl pellet rodent I leaped to my pile of unidentified bones. There it was. I cut it open and saw the cochlea, which I would not have seen. When we reconvened, many other classmates had been inspired to do the same.

Cross section of Edwin Barkdoll's auditory bulla

Cross section of Edwin Barkdoll’s auditory bulla

On the surface we are so very different, but under the hood we are all driven by a deep curiosity about our world, and are not shy about delving into it. Hannah gently pried apart the feet of the dead mink we are examining. “There are webs between the toes,” she observes. Our instructor exclaims “Yes,” and segues into mink habits. Those who had not noticed the webbed feet lean eagerly to see. We learn from each other as well as on our own and in class.

That’s us, ears pricked up, noses quivering, eyes on the look-out for something to learn.

Gosh, I love this group.

If you want the real thing–daily, small, perfectly-sized doses of what’s happening in our world right now, everyday, follow Mary Holland (I do):

For more about the Maine Master Naturalist program:

Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.