Rats! Birds! Gophers! … What’s in an Owl Pellet, Alex?

You may not spend much time thinking about what owls eat, but for the past month 4th grade ACT students have been doing just that. To kick off the unit students spent the majority of their time building their background knowledge about barn owls, their physical and behavioral characteristics, and, in particular, their unique digestive tracts. [Did you know that owls are not the only birds that throw up pellets, but because the digestive juices of an owl’s stomach aren’t as acidic, owl pellets are unique in containing the bones of their previous meal along with fur, feathers, or insect parts? Yum!]

Students further prepared for their dissection by thinking of themselves as archaeologists, hypothesizing about what they might find. ACT teacher, Julie Clark shares the details: “Before dissecting the pellets, students learned all about barn owls, about trophic levels, and the spot the barn owls take in the food chain [the apex predator]. We study their unique digestive tracts to prepare for the dissection noting that owls cannot digest fur and bones, so these are regurgitated in the form of a pellet. Later in the unit, we reassembled the bones in an artistic picture, creatively writing about the barn owl’s last 24 hours.”

When our ACT students received their pellets, they made observations about the size and physical attributes as well as hypotheses about what type of animal bones they may find. Students identify the various bones they find to prepare for their artistic rendering of the owl’s prey. [BTW, Owl pellet dissection isn’t just for school anymore! Thanks to pellet.com, you can purchase your own and try this at home! What a perfect [and affordable!] way to keep the kids engaged over the summer!]

Thankfully, this won’t be the students last encounter with the fascinating owl pellet. “The owl pellet dissection is revisited, in a way, when the students get to 5th grade.  At 5th grade, the kids study sharks in a unit called Surfing with Sharks.  At the end of the unit, they dissect Spiny Dogfish Sharks.  This year, the shark dissections were AMAZING [this isn’t a typical dissection that students encounter until the high school/college level — for example, we hosted a Grand Valley Professor during one of our shark dissections as he dissects sharks with his vertebrate anatomy class].”

“After spending time reviewing how owl pellets are formed, we were able to analyze our pellets by determining their masses, creating a scientific drawing, and noting other observations. The students made predictions of how many bones they expected to find, and we even analyzed our data by finding the mean, median, mode, and range of the owl pellet masses. After this important work, the students set their sights on extracting all of the bones from their pellets. This was very exciting and the students were pleasantly surprised to see that many of their pellets
contained more than one skull [the highest number of skulls found in one pellet was 7!].”

You might think that inspecting the regurgitated dinners of barn owls was enough, but not for our ACT 4th graders! The unit culminated in a field trip to the Outdoor Discovery Center and their Dewitt Birds of Prey Center. “It was AMAZING. First, we hiked out to the Birds of Prey exhibit, noting all the adaptations that plants and animals make during the winter months. Then, students had time to view the birds at the center [all of which were injured in some way and cannot survive on their own in the wild]. They saw hawks, owls, two bald eagles, and a peregrine falcon. The staff then took us into the classroom onsite where they showed us a horned owl, peregrine falcon, and a red-tailed hawk up close. The students and parents were thrilled to learn so much about these amazing animals.”

Ms Clark knows that these types of experiences make a lasting impact on students. “I have been so proud of the work of these great fourth graders.  They learned a lot in just six class sessions.  The students’ response to the project has been great.  When students first give me “the look” when I announce that we will be dissecting “owl puke” I remind them of two of our Core Values in ACT: Stay Open and Take the Risk.  Inquirers want to know.  We learn with enthusiasm and always seek to try new things!”

“I am proud that Jenison Public Schools understands the value and importance of ACT.  Where other districts may have had to cut or scale back their programming for academically talented students, JPS has continued to invest in providing unique and thought-provoking learning opportunities for these children.  When challenging academically talented students, it is essential that students are presented with opportunities to not only learn about subjects that they wouldn’t necessarily see for a few years, but to also afford them chances to explore, create, problem solve, and above all, try new things.”  Parents can learn all about ACT here.

Thank you, Ms. Clark, for keeping our students engaged and curious! Our district is better because of the ways you’re preparing students for new experiences, problem-solving, and thinking creatively!

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