Dissecting Owl Pellets
Students identify an owl pellet's contents and practice recording and analyzing the data.
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5
- Unit Plan:
After observing the teacher model the lab, students work with lab partners to dissect an owl pellet and identify its contents. Later, they will record data about prey on a graph.
- Observe teacher dissect owl pellet.
- Work with lab partner to dissect owl pellet.
- Record results on lab report sheet.
- Share results with class and record findings on graph.
- Repeat lab later in unit.
- Owl pellets, one for every two students. Order one per student and set aside half of the pellets for the second lab.
- Lab reports (PDF)
- Black construction paper
- Magnifying glass, toothpicks, rulers
- Tweezers, lab aprons, and latex gloves (all optional)
- Owl Pellet Bone Chart, to identify skeletons of prey. It can be downloaded for free from the Carolina Biological Supply Company (scroll down to the bottom of their page)
- Chart paper and colored markers, for graph
About Owl Pellets: Owl pellets contain regurgitated bones, fur, and feathers that owls cannot digest. Pellets can be ordered from a biological supply house. Commercial pellets have been sterilized and arrive individually wrapped in aluminum foil. They can be handled safely with bare hands.
Set Up and Prepare
- Practice dissecting an owl pellet ahead of time.
- Copy lab reports, one per partnership plus a few extras.
- Get out all materials.
Day 1 – Teacher Demonstrates
Teacher demonstrates owl pellet dissection while students observe. The purpose of the demonstration is for students to understand the process, not for the teacher to give away the discoveries.
Step 1: Put pellet on black construction paper.
Step 2: Observe outside of pellet before opening it. Measure it.
Step 3: Ask students for their predictions about what’s inside.
Step 4: Show how to use a lab report sheet.
Step 5: Pretend to do lab.
Step 6: Answer student questions about process.
Day 2 – Students do the Lab
Step 1: Set up for lab while students are out of the room. Put black construction paper, a wrapped pellet, toothpicks, rulers, aprons, and an Owl Pellet Bone Chart at each station. I do this during my prep period so lab is ready to go when students return. Have latex gloves in case anyone asks for them.
Step 2: Go over lab sheet with class.
Step 3: Students record their names on lab sheets and start lab. Tell students to record their observations as they work.
Step 4: Circulate, encourage, and observe without giving students information. When students need help, refer them to their lab partner. If they continue to need help, give hints.
Step 5: Stop lab after 30 minutes. Discuss with the class both their discoveries and the process.
Step 6: Make sure students recorded their discoveries on their lab report sheets. Collect lab sheets.
Day 3 – Recording the Results
Step 1: Make up grid for bar graph ahead of time on chart paper. Title of graph might be What Owls Eat.
Step 2: Pass out lab sheets. Ask lab partners to share their findings.
Step 3: With student help, record results with tally marks on blackboard. Transfer the tally marks to the bar graph.
Step 4: Ask students for statements they could make based on data:
- “What do we know about what owls eat?”
- “Were our predictions accurate?” Refer to predictions on chart paper.
- “Was there anything in our data that surprised you?”
- “When we do this lab again what do you think we’ll find?”
Supporting All Learners
Yuck! Factor: I do the lab first to reassure students who are timid or hesitant about handling owl pellets. I’m enthusiastic but calm, and tell students this work is what scientists do. My positive attitude sets the tone for the lab. I don’t force participation. Since we do the lab twice, usually all students participate in one or both labs.
Gluing Skeletons Together: Some students use the Owl Pellet Bone Chart to piece together skeletons and glue them to cardboard with craft glue. Be prepared for creative skeletons.
Wild Owl Pellets: Depending on where you live, students may find owl pellets around the base of trees where owls nest. Since these owl pellets have not been sterilized, they contain bacteria. Tell students to ask an adult to help them collect the owl pellet. Ask them to put it in a zippered baggy if they bring it to school to share. Don't dissect unsterilized owl pellets.
Students will dissect an owl pellet and record findings on lab sheet. Later they will share results with class and transfer data to a bar graph. After one or two weeks they will repeat the lab.
When you think about your teaching, ask yourself, did I:
- set a positive, calm tone during the demonstration?
- establish clear expectations so most students completed the lab without hesitancy?
- encourage collaboration?
- assist in analyzing data?
- give too much information?
- note any misconceptions that I want to clarify later on?
Here’s what I’m looking for. Did students:
- participate in lab?
- organize themselves and their materials?
- ask questions?
- stay on-task?
- help one another?
- gather and record data?
- draw conclusions and interpret data?
- show growth from first to second lab?