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Jan 23, 2017 4:48 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Close Look At Owl And Hawk Pellets

Jan 24, 2017 9:24 AM

My first introduction to pellets—those compressed, dense, surprisingly lightweight and odorless masses of indigestible food remains that birds regurgitate—were those of our larger owls: the great-horned and barred owls. Composed of fur or feathers, and lots of bones, teeth, and claws, owl pellets were a lot of fun to dissect because it was not unusual to uncover a complete skull of one of the prey that was caught and swallowed.

If you find a pellet and want to dissect it, soak it first in warm water to loosen up the fur or feathers. It’s amazing how packed that material can get in and around the bones. After it has soaked for a while, tease the fur/feathers out and set aside the bones, claws, teeth and perhaps a small skull for closer examination.

One of the pellets in the photograph was found last week in the Walking Dunes, out in the open, far from any trees or shrubs, and consists of some hollow bones, a breast bone, and complete vertebrae column (approximately 4.5 inches long), and feathers. Based on the long neck and habitat (proximity to Napeague Harbor), I’m guessing it’s the remains of a shorebird.

The large amount of bone material would make this an owl pellet; owls are not as fastidious as hawks about picking meat off their prey. I’m calling this a snowy owl pellet because of its location; our other owls would leave their pellets below their favored roosting perch, while snowys are used to living in a treeless landscape and roosting on the ground.

The other pellet is more characteristic of a hawk, with the very small amount of non-fur items being the teeth and lower jaws of a mouse. This was one of several similar-sized pellets found beneath a black cherry tree growing in the middle of a field in Amagansett. One caveat with identifying this as a hawk pellet is that the width of the pellet (width is apparently more accurate than length in determining the species) measured 1.4 inches, and that of our largest hawk, the red-tailed, measures under 1 inch in width.

My reference book does not include the pellet dimensions of another large hawk, and known “mouser,” that has been regularly sighted in the area. That would be the marsh hawk, or Northern harrier. It will remain a possible suspect until further evidence is compiled.

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