Copper River Record August 9, 2018
By Janelle Eklund
It was a cloudy drizzly rainy kind of day but that didn’t deter people spreading their wings to flock to Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve’s (WRST) Wings Over the Wrangells. Four learning stations gave participants the opportunity to experience firsthand the lives of birds.
The picking apart of owl pellets to discover all kinds of little bones and skulls was a major attractant for the young crowd and some oldsters at the Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment (WISE) station. Equipped with gloves, tweezer, a pointed stick, and a hand lens there was some very meticulous picking apart and serious discovery going on. The excitement of finding a small jaw with tiny teeth, or a whole intact skull was thrilling to watch. A sheet of paper identifying the various bones was taped next to each person so as they picked the bones out of the pellet they could lay them on the correct picture, which was labeled with the type of bone. Parents of the young ones were just as fascinated and worked right along with them digging and probing for bone treasures.
Some wanted to take their pellet and/or bones home and continue the joy of finding something new.
Contrary to popular belief an owl pellet is not something that comes out of the hind end of the bird. It’s actually regurgitated matter. The owl uses its beak to take apart a vole – like us cutting our meat – and consumes it along with any bones. The meat and soft tissues get digested. The bones don’t and the owl needs to get rid of them, so they are regurgitated and come out in a pellet looking similar to a winter moose dropping, but usually a little bit bigger. Sometimes the bones are pretty intact within the pellet and if one is very careful, as some of the participants were, the whole skull can be extracted from the rest of the pellet.
A live Great Gray Owl and Red Tailed Hawk from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center also drew attention where their life style and habits were discussed. These birds had been injured in some way and could not be returned to the wild because they wouldn’t survive. So they become teachers!
At another station anyone was also able to make their own bird out of craft materials and/or spruce cones. Everyone seemed to enjoy the afternoon of scientific bird discovery with the new found knowledge giving their own wings a wider span! Thanks to WRST for putting on this enjoyable event.
Kids and parents enjoyed discovering what remained of an owl's meals inside the pellets they cough up at the WISE learning station as part of Wings Over the Wrangells at the NPS visitor center. Photo: Courtesy of Janelle Eklund
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.