Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Closet naturalist

What has 14 heads, 30 legs and 28 arms of differing lengths?

A small board on the kitchen table, where I sorted the piles of fluff ‘n’ stuff—the owl pellets I collected from beneath the perch of my barred owl.

When I gathered the gray, furry pellets last spring, I tucked them away, dried and odorless, in a bag, hidden behind a box of saltines in the back of the pantry—for a time when gardening, hiking and the likes would not consume every bit of waking time. Now, almost a year later, and, having emptied the closet of Christmas cookies and fancy crackers piled high for the holidays, I came across the odd-looking bundle looking dangerously like some no-bake, health food snack.

Winter days are meant for discovery—and a 3-day weekend of frigid temperatures would mean plenty of uninterrupted time for the project. Quiet hours, the wood stove warming the house, crouched over the kitchen table—working a puzzle, of sorts.
My closets go unsorted, the laundry basket spilling over with mismatched socks to be replenished to the drawers upstairs.
But, intrigue wins over order.

Much of the fur washes easily off—as the tiny shapes begin to emerge, becoming recognizable forms not unlike our own.
Delicate, yet strong, preserved intact—bright, white bone.
And, in almost every pellet, a skull—a key piece to this puzzle—unbroken, swallowed whole.

Laid out before me, the little bones, so perfectly clean, become the smallest mammals of our field.

At work this morning, we share stories of our time away.
“It was a nice weekend,” I say. “Relaxed around the fire, worked on a puzzle..."
I left out the 14 tiny skulls lined up on my kitchen table.

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Stacie said...

That is so cool! I didn't know shrew's skulls were so tiny!

I remember going through owl poop in 6th grade, and finding so many cool bones. I'd love to do that with my son (who I homeschool). I've never seen any owl poop around here. I wonder if I can order some off the Internet?

nina said...

It was really cool.
And, I know many scientific supply companies sell pellets for just that reason--it's an educational exercise.

The pellets are actually coughed up much like a cat coughs up a fur ball, so they're not really poop at all--they're dry and have no smell--much like a chunk of woolen felt.

And, I wanted to know exactly what my owl found so appealing about that large field behind the woods......now I know!

Sally said...

hi nina,
Have you read Skellig by David Almond? It is a juvenile book. I read it becaues he is going to visit American school here. It is short and delightful. Owls and owl pellets are a large part of story. So are Blake-like themes.
It is good to go back sometimes and think like a teenager.
we have big barn owls and pellets too. Everybody is in a nesting frenzy at farm now!

Stacie said...

Thanks for the info. I think I will look into finding some owl pellets for my son.

Susan Gets Native said...

Cool, Nina! I looked for some fresh ones under where "our" barred owl had been sitting, but no dice. I guess he didn't sit there long enough.
Julie Z is collecting some pellets for me, and I would love some from you, too, if you can swing it. My education box is lonely without all the hairy jelly-beans.

nina said...

Sally--I haven't read Skellig, so I'll see about finding a copy.
I think barn owls have lovely faces, if yours are the same in Brazil. Do you ever see owlets??

Susan--I thought you might find this cool. (apparently, we're in a very small club)
I'll keep my eyes open and let you know what I find!

Crayons said...

Wow, this is just amazing. The photos are stunning. My favorite is the line-up of your spoils. Your posts always make me want to take a closer look. I didn't know anything about pellets -- I don't think I would even recognize one. The image of you hunched over a table, sorting bones is delicious to my artistic self. It reminded me of Whoville in "Horton Hears a Who."

Finally, thanks for that insightful comment on my blog.

SLW said...

"Nature remains" indeed! What a great way to spend the weekend!

We used to do this at the museum where I worked-- there's even a drawing of a vole skeleton you can get (or is that cheating?)...

Thanks for a great post.

LauraHinNJ said...

I loved this post, Nina!

One of my happiest memories from teaching second grade was the day we played with owl pellets - even the girls had fun once they got over being grossed out!

Anonymous said...

Oh I love your closeup photos of the skulls with penny in the background. Nicely done!

nina said...

Crayons--Yes, sometimes I'm afraid to think who I'll be in several more years. That kitchen table is becoming the mad scientist's workshop!

slw--I was amazed at how much human anatomy I remembered from college--those little mousie bones are just like ours!

laura--I think one of the greatest gifts you can give a girl is a life free of gender-restricted exploration. The earlier, the better.

Jennifer--I gave up on trying to make thses "pretty"--thought the "technical" approach more appropriate for piles of bones. :-)

Q said...

Dear Nina,
This post appeals to every part of me! Now to find an Owl in my area.
I also would be sorting right on the kitchen table!
I so enjoy your posts.
Thank you.

Mary said...


Oooo, I haven't seen owl pellets since my daughter was in high school. I loved this post! Like Sherry, I need to find an owl near me.


Mary C said...

Hi Nina - that was a fascinating post. So informative and I loved the way you displayed the items. It's always fun to find out what an owl ate. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

You have an intersting collection here. You could make necklaces out of the skulls and bones.

nina said...

Q--Isn't winter perfect for projects like that!

Mary--I must've had a deprived childhood--I never did this in school--but what fun it was, even now!

MaryC--I was informed, too--this puzzle answered my wonderings.

Lisa--but imagine what my co-workers would think THEN! (actually, it might confirm what I'm sure they're already thinking :-))

Greg said...

Fascinating! While your owl is wild and is not a household pet, how comfortable is it living near you? How close is your owl's perch to your house? To what extent can you watch it and get to know and observe it? And (full of questions here) what rodents is it eating? Are they small field mice?
- Greg

nina said...

Greg--There have been times I've seen her perched outside our kitchen windows--but just for a moment. Her roost is back in a dense stand of pines--more secluded and rarely walked by me.
I looked forward to the pellets in a way to understand more of what I knew I probably wouldn't be able to observe first-hand.
She eats: shrews and some small rodent--maybe field mice or voles.

mon@rch said...

Nina - after been reviewing your blog for as long as I have . . . without a doubt you are a naturalist but never expected the mini skull collection! You rock for sure! BTW: have not taken an owl pellet apart in a while! Hmm

Crafty Green Poet said...

oh how fascintating! We found an owl pellet recently too but haven't taken it apart...

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

WAY cool! If they had been hidden in the back of my pantry, I probably would've eaten them in some uncontrolled eating binge.
This stuff is great - thank you..