Dissecting an Owl Pellet

Type Category
Instructional Materials
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Students identify an owl pellet's contents and practice recording and analyzing the data.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Informal Education
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

5-LS2-1 Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the idea that matter that is not food (air, water, decomposed materials in soil) is changed by plants into matter that is food. Examples of systems could include organisms, ecosystems, and the Earth.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include molecular explanations.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
If this activity were done at the start of a unit on Matter and Energy in Organisms and Ecosystems, it would provide experience with a highly engaging phenomenon. By empirically discovering what animals are eaten by an owl, students begin to build toward the achievement of this Performance Expectation. Students could eventually incorporate the learning from this activity in the creation of food web models to explain the transfer of matter and energy in ecosystems. This activity demonstrates the movement of energy from small animals to the owl. To more fully address the standard, the students would need to include the Sun, producers, and decomposers in the food web. The students could design a model of the food web for the owl, beginning with the Sun, moving to the seeds and plants that the small animals inside the owl would have eaten, then the small animals, then the owl, then things that ate the owl, and finally end with decomposers. By bringing in all of these tropic levels, the activity will address the complete standard.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
A simple lab sheet is provided for the second phase of the lesson. Teachers may want to revise to provide more space for illustrating findings or adding questions. For part Three, teachers could develop a comprehensive data collection sheet with students instead of providing handout. The class might think aloud how to construct data tables and brainstorm ideas for possible data categories and how to set up the table. When analyzing the data, ask students to look for patterns or relationships they see within their data.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In this activity, students dissect an owl pellet which will eventually lead to students to discover that owls eat smaller organisms, and to the idea of matter and energy transfer between organisms.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: If this activity is used early in a unit on Matter and Energy in Organisms and Ecosystems, it effectively builds toward the idea of matter and energy transferring between organisms. As a way to provide some background and engage students with the activity, students might view short videos showing an owl eating an animal whole (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFFMbNplbUI ) and an owl regurgitating a pellet ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PfjN2ZSmdA ). Introducing food web models would provide an extension to the activity and a transition to the idea of energy transfer.

  • Instructional Supports: It is mentioned that students will repeat the lab after one or two weeks have passed, but the purpose for this is not stated. Students could record numbers and types of animals eaten from one or both dissections in order to provide data to graph. In addition to aggregated class data, students could present their own findings on the reverse of their lab sheet with a graph they create or one provided by the teacher. There is very little reading required for his activity, but no support is provided for struggling learners. Carolina Biological Supply is recommended as a source of owl pellets and information, including detailed bone charts for identifying prey.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: A list of questions for teacher self-reflection and things to look for in assessing students are provided, but no detailed materials are provided.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include a technologically interactive component, but students who need to repeat the activity or are uncomfortable with handling pellets might use a virtual owl pellet dissection that can be found at http://kidwings.com/nests-of-knowledge/virtual-pellet/