How to identify owl pellets

It's great fun finding owl pellets, but do you know who made them? Here are the key features to look for – and some other birds that also produce pellets.

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How to identify wildlife signs

February is a good month to see barn owls and short-eared owls quartering rough ground during the day. It is also a good month to look for pellets, the regurgitated remains of indigestible food made by a wide range of birds.

Owl pellets can be told apart by their size, shape and location.

Most owls produce one or two pellets a day, and these are usually found at roost sites. Do not disturb a roosting owl, and remember it is illegal to enter an occupied barn owl nest site without a licence. 

Other birds, such as kestrels, sparrowhawks, buzzards, herons, corvids, gulls and waders also produce pellets, and these provide excellent clues as to what the birds have been eating.

 
WHAT TO LOOK FOR 
 
Tawny owls
  • Tawny owl pellets are grey, cylindrical, around 6cmx3cm with somewhat pointed ends. Often found at the base of conifer trees used for roosting.
  • Often contain bird remains in suburban areas. 
 
Long- and short-eared owls
  • In winter, long-eared owls roost in trees (often conifers) and close to the ground in bushes. Pellets are pale or dark grey, thin and elongate up to 7.5cm x 3cm, rounded at one or both ends.
  • Short-eared owls roost on the ground and produce very similar pellets.
 
Barn owls
  • Barn owl pellets are generally found at roost sites in buildings and are characteristically rounded or cylindrical, about 5cmx3cm, with a smooth surface covered with blackish-grey crust.
  • The barn owl is the owl most likely to eat shrews.
 
Little owls
  • Little owl pellets are mostly found in buildings and hollow trees.
  • They are very small, up to 2.5cmx1.5cm, rounded at one end and pointed at the other.
  • In summer, they largely contain insect remains, so may appear blue-black from the beetle elytra (the hardened outer wings).
  • In winter, pellets are grey and contain the remains of mice and small birds. 
 
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH...
 
  • Kestrels nest in holes in trees and buildings; pellets are 3cmx1.5cm, rounded at one end, pointed at the other. They may contain remains of small mammals, birds and insects.
     
  • Rook pellets are most commonly found below rookeries and in fields where rooks have been feeding; 3.5cmx1.5cm and generally contain plant remains and small stones. 
     
  • Gull pellets generally found at breeding colonies, roost sites and in fields where they have been feeding. Contain fish remains, plant material and remains of fruit and garbage.
     
  • Heron pellets usually found at roost sites: variable in shape and rarely contain fish remains. Usually fur of small mammals, especially voles.
     
  • Fox scats Occasionally there can be confusion between owl pellets and fox scats: pellets are only found at a roost or perch site, while scats tend to be longer and thinner and often contain some plant material and insects. In addition, scats contain fur or feathers, have a twist at one end, and when fresh, smell of fox.

 

HOW TO DISSECT OWL PELLETS
 
  • To see the contents of pellets, soak them in water and dissect out the bones. Most prey will be small mammals. To identify them, look at the teeth with a hand lens.
  • Shrews have continuous rows of small, pointed teeth, whereas rodents have a gap between the front incisors and the cheek teeth.
  • The cheek teeth of voles have a zig-zag chewing surrface, those of rats and mice small rounded cusps.

 

If you enjoyed this article, why not read the previous part or the next part – how to identify mammal scats

 

 
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