UF professor flies high in the small world of owl-pellet gathering

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dissecting owl pellets and reconstructing animal skeletons inside can be a gruesomely great educational experience for youngsters – so much so, that demand for owl pellets has spawned a cottage industry.

In Florida, one of the main suppliers is Richard Raid, a professor with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Owls can’t chew, so they rip prey apart with their beaks and swallow it in big chunks. The pellets are blobs of undigested fur and bones the birds regurgitate after a meal.

Raid gathers 3,000 to 5,000 pellets each year from farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area. He leads workshops at schools, clubs and museums where he shows children how to carefully pick apart the pellets, identify the creatures inside, and arrange the bones into complete skeletons.

The experience may sound cringe-inducing, but it teaches children about biology and predator-prey relationships, says Raid, a plant pathologist at UF’s Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade.

“I have an expression: With kids, if cute is good, gross is better,” he said. “The more unpleasant you can make something, the more it interests them.”

Raid says teachers often tell him his workshop was the most memorable lesson of the year.

“That’s gratifying,” he said.

But becoming a pellet magnate wasn’t something Raid set out to do. Instead, it developed from another project he’s pursued for more than a decade.

Raid helps farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area install owl nesting boxes, because the birds provide low-cost, sustainable rodent control. The pests, particularly cotton rats and marsh rabbits, cause up to $30 million in damage each year to the area’s 700,000 acres of sugar cane, rice and vegetable crops.

A nesting pair of barn owls can eat 1,000 rodents per year. The area now has hundreds of nesting boxes and some of the highest barn-owl concentrations in the country, Raid says.

Along the way, he realized there was a demand for owl pellets, so Raid started gathering and sterilizing them and giving them to local teachers. These days his supply goes partly to educators. The rest are sold to biological supply dealers who pay about 50 cents per pellet, money Raid uses to support the program.

Nationwide, owl pellet gathering is worth perhaps $2 million to $3 million per year, but it’s growing at 25 to 30 percent annually, says Chris Anderson, owner of Owl Brand Discovery Kits in Portland, Ore.

Anderson’s company, founded in 1996, employs 12 full-time gatherers and ships at least a quarter million owl pellets each year, he said. They gather owl pellets from about 1,000 sites in Western states, mainly on private land.

“It’s very relationship driven,” Anderson said. “You’re asking to poke around someone’s property.”

And the job presents some unique challenges.

“I’ve had floors fall out from underneath me in old, abandoned houses,” he said. “I’ve been dive-bombed by owls.”

As raptors go, barn owls are fairly docile, Raid says, usually preferring to flee when people approach their nests. But he adds, “I’ve had a talon or two come in contact with me.”

The pellets are usually retrieved from nesting boxes, or places owls roost, such as old barns and pump houses. A barn owl can expel two or three pellets each day. The best time for gathering is in the spring and fall, because there’s little rain and pellets stay intact long enough to dry out. Here, fresh is not best, Raid says. Pellets less than 24 hours old are messy.

“For those I definitely wear gloves,” he said. “They’re the consistency of a big wad of chewing tobacco that’s just been spit out.”

Contacts:

Writer: Tom Nordlie, 352-273-3567, tnordlie@ufl.edu

Sources: Richard Raid, 561-993-1564, rnraid@ufl.edu
Chris Anderson, 503-913-2816, Chris@obdk.com
Caption:
In this file photo released by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Richard Raid rousts a barn owl from its nesting box on a South Florida farm. Raid, a professor at the Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade, encourages farmers to install nesting boxes in their fields because owls provide natural rodent control. He also gathers and distributes owl pellets, a popular item for youngsters to examine in science classes. (AP photo/University of Florida/IFAS/Eric Zamora)