What is a Barn Owl pellet? – a 4 minute video with David Ramsden from the Barn Owl Trust.
What are Barn Owl pellets?
- Barn Owls are unable to digest the fur and bone of their prey, which they usually swallow whole.
- The indigestible parts are regurgitated (coughed up through the beak) in the form of an owl pellet.
- After feeding, producing a pellet takes 6 hours or more.
- After each night’s hunting an owl regurgitates 1 or 2 pellets.
- Barn Owl pellets are typically about the size of a man’s thumb and black when fresh.
- Pellets often contain the remains of 4 or 5 small mammals.
- Pellet dissection can tell you exactly what an owl has eaten.
Where to find Barn Owl pellets
Pellets often accumulate at roosting or nesting sites, where owls can hide away and shelter from the weather. There are several signs of Barn Owl occupation to look out for, which help decide if the pellets are from Barn Owls or from a different bird. Barn Owl pellets are black when fresh and dark grey when dry.
Bird pellet identity chart: Identify the bird pellets you find. Most birds produce pellets, which look different according to what they eat. Or have you found something else entirely – like a fox scat for instance?
More about owl pellet identification on our Barn Owl online Survey website.
Take care if collecting pellets from the wild as Barn Owls are a protected species and it is illegal to disturb them while breeding. However, it’s likely that any owl nest is high above you and if you are quietly collecting pellets on the ground you are probably not going to disturb the owls.
Owl pellet storage and preparation
Fresh owl pellets can be dried or frozen, and kept in an airtight container. If moist pellets are stored together they can become a congealed mass of pellet debris. If pellets are stored in a sealed container a number of grubs or small moths may be found once the container is reopened. These are clothes moths and their grubs are completely harmless (except to wool).
Barn Owl pellet analysis
In dry well-used roost sites lots of Barn Owl pellets can accumulate. Using our owl pellet age guide photo on the right, it’s possible to work out how long Barn Owls have been using the site and how recently the owl was present.
Barn Owl pellets break down with age as clothes moths eat the fur, leaving the tiny bones behind, which can last for many years.
Barn Owl pellet dissection
Pellets can be analysed wet or dry. It is easier to analyse dry pellets, but to extract all of the small mammal bones intact, dried pellets can be soaked in water for 24 hours.
Gently tease the pellet apart using your fingers or tweezers. Although pellets do not smell, (they are not faeces) hands should be washed thoroughly with soap and water after this activity.
Barn Owl pellet contents identification
Many thousands of Barn Owl pellets have been analysed so we know a great deal about what Barn Owl’s hunt and eat.
Wild Barn Owls eat mainly small mammals such as voles, shrews and mice. Other less common items include rats, birds and frogs.
The simplest way to identify which small mammals have been eaten is to search for the lower jaw bones, then ‘pair up’ the right and left jaws from each pellet.
The shapes of the bones, particularly the jawbones, can tell you what species of animal the owl has eaten. You can also count how many prey items are contained within an individual pellet.
Barn Owl pellet analysis and dissection for schools – free* PDF to download. Includes owl pellet analysis diagrams.
*Free for personal and educational use only – copyright Barn Owl Trust.
For more detailed information, see this useful PDF from the Mammal Society:
A Photographic Guide to Small Mammal Bones in Barn Owl Pellets
– by Susanna J Ramsey & Derek Crawley.
Contains everything you need for owl pellet dissection – including a real Barn Owl pellet! Natural science straight from the owl’s mouth! Owl pellet analysis is a fascinating activity for adults and children. You can buy the packs from our online shop.
Other relevant pages:
- Photos of owl pellet analysis – bone identification
- Owl pellet facts for kids
- Barn Owl hunting and feeding – what do Barn Owls eat and how do they hunt?
- Signs of Barn Owl occupation – are Barn Owls living in your barn?