The Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) that came down to Washington this winter, which I have written about before, finally contributed some pellets to the cause of science.
Of course, you know what owl pellets are. Birds of prey, and actually quite a few other birds, eat a lot of stuff that doesn't make it through their digestive tract. Hair and feathers are difficult to digest, as are bones and mollusk shells. So even if they are broken into smaller pieces when eaten and crushed by heavily muscled gizzards, even the smaller pieces can't pass through the hindgut very well. Rather than sharp-pointed bones coming up one by one, they are coated in hair or feathers and barfed, urped, hurled, vomited and/or regurgitated back into the environment.
Paul Bannick, well-known bird photographer and author of The Owl and the Woodpecker, recently sent me three pellets he picked up from one spot at Ocean Shores. At the museum, we soaked them in water and stirred them up until the feathers floated and the bones sank. We recovered a surprising amount of bones, arranged them by type, and identified them by comparing with our skeleton collection.
Snowy Owls are well known to subsist largely on water birds in the winter on our coast, and there wasn't a trace of a mammal in these five pellets. By now you may have figured out that ornithophagous = bird eating.