PLAINFIELD – Fifth-grade students at William B. Orenic Intermediate School weren’t sure what they were in for recently when they went to the weekly science club in teacher Shelley Hill’s classroom.
Sometimes Hill has them make fun stuff, such as bouncy balls, or for the ever-popular egg drop contest. She usually keeps the projects a secret until the day students come to the after-school club.
Hill invited a guest last week – Erin Ecker of the Forest Preserve District of Will County – to talk to students about owls and where they fit in the ecosystem, and to help them dissect an owl pellet.
Hill isn’t required to follow the school’s curriculum during science club; in fact, it’s a good way for science students to acquire extra hands-on knowledge. But the project fit right into the what the class currently is studying.
“We just started doing energy, transfer food webs and predator-prey,” Hill said.
An owl typically devours four to five mice a day, and possibly a snake and a tiny bird. Before food turns into energy, it passes through the first of two stomachs, where acids break down the nutrients. The healthy parts move on to the gizzard.
What is left behind in the glandular, or first stomach, are things the owl can’t digest, such as fur and bones from rodents, feathers from smaller birds, and seeds or grasses the prey may have eaten. The owl gets rid of the unwanted parts by coughing them up, much like a cat coughs up a fur ball, Ecker said.
The science club students were excited to hear about how an owl is at the top of the food chain in a part of the ecosystem. If you remove the owl from the equation, mice will be everywhere until they run out of the seed farmers plant.
But the real fun started when Ecker brought out the owl pellets: the undigested portions from the first part of the owls’ stomachs. They were fuzzy, egg-shaped masses of fur, bones and other critter parts – sterilized for dissection, of course.
The fifth-grade science buffs got a bit squeamish at the idea of what they were dissecting, but it didn’t stop any of them from carefully pulling away fur with tweezers to uncover portions of rodent legs and skulls.
“The skulls scared me because I didn’t know what to expect,” Kara Ziemniarski said. “But I just love owls.”
Students had all sorts of reactions to the project.
“Nature is the best,” Maliyah Kajgi said as she painstakingly pulled out multiple tiny bones from the furry pellet.
Those words were music to Ecker’s ears.
Such dissection is the way scientists find out what nocturnal animals eat.
“You are like scientists,” Ecker told the class. “You get to do what scientists do to nature.”
Hill was surprised at the many responses by her science club students, particularly Cole Pearson, who scrunched his face in disgust, despite being a young man typically up for anything in the realm of science.
“It’s nasty, but kind of cool,” Pearson said.
Once students got past the “ick” factor, they went about treasure hunting through their pellets to see what they could find. No one was disappointed.
Kayden Corbeil may have found the most critter parts in her pellet. She and Hill examined them with a magnifying glass and compared with to a bone chart.
“We originally started doing this because kids always want to dissect stuff and it isn’t in the curriculum to actually dissect anything,” Hill said. “We can give the kids cool hands-on experience, and now it relates to NGSS standards for fifth grade.”