My first grade daughter had the opportunity to dissect owl pellets in her school classroom earlier this year. She thought it was the COOLEST thing on the planet. She brought the findings home in a clear plastic container with a magnifying top, and she has treasured those little tiny rat bones. When the opportunity came this same school year for her to participate in the first ever STEM fair at her school I asked her what she was interested in learning about and she immediately said she wanted to dissect more owl pellets. I agreed, not knowing how gross those pellets were going to be. Her enthusiasm was too cute to ignore so I went online and purchased the pellets. I was a little ambitious and ordered three big and three small pellets from this website. She wanted to compare what was inside the different sized pellets and so we helped her turn her curiosity into a “question” and “hypothesis” and set to work.
Here is what the owl pellets looked like when they came in the box. Yep. Just like that no special packaging or anything just put in the box. The pellets are “heat pasteurized to kill bacteria” so no worries. Here is the small versus the large pellets unwrapped. The outer layer of the pellet was a little crustier than others and it would take some delicate determination to get into those little bones. The fur is quite compacted when you get started as you can see in the pictures. But as you start picking it out it expands into this big nasty fluffy fur mess. As she dissected I recorded in her science journal some of the observations that she verbalized. My favorite was this, “It smells. It smells like dry grass that hasn’t been watered for a long time” When I sniffed it that’s exactly what it smelled like.
The above picture above was taken at about the same time I almost got sick and lost it! Just thinking about this nasty pile of fluffy rat fur. Need I say more? Bleck!! Something I will never forget is using the tweezers to pull compacted fur from the eye sockets of the skulls. It kept coming and coming and I thought I’d never get the fur out. Crazy that so much fur can be compacted in that little space. And you can see below that someone was much more patient in getting the fur out of the eye sockets on the left skull than from the skull on the right.
We laid the bones on graph paper so she could compare the sizes of the bones she found in the large and small pellets. I admit there are so many more ways that you could go about this project to make it more scientifically precise. We could have (and should have) precisely measured the bones side by side. Since she has measured with centimeter cubes in first grade math this year I felt it would be an appropriate grade level way to measure. And of course we could have literally counted each and every bone but seriously the size of those ribs!?! And how to tell if two bones is really just one bone broken in pieces?
I certainly just let her have more fun with this project and hopefully the beginnings of the scientific thought process started working within her. I honestly don’t know how much sunk in as it was hard to keep her focused at times. All in all it was an enriching experience to her first grade career and when she looks back on I hope she will remember it as a very scientifically executed project. She did have a blast and I’m sure she learned a lot, too, but it was fascinating for me to read about the owl eating habits and how the pellets are formed and regurgitated and all that fun stuff. A great (short) article we used for her research was this one here. It was short enough to keep her attention as we read it together and discussed it. There were also some children’s books we read and discussed together about owls.
This project is simple enough you could try at home this summer to keep little minds engaged.
Here are pictures of her simple yet effective project board. She told me (mostly) what to type and picked the paper and did a lot of the gluing and placement following the STEM fair diagram/guidelines she was given.