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Contents of a previously examined owl pellet

Contents of a previously examined owl pellet
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

To fly, birds need to be as lightweight as possible. To reduce their weight, birds have developed many amazing adaptations. For example, instead of being heavy and solid, many of their bones are fused or hollow. They've even lost some non-essential bones, including all teeth!

Because birds have no teeth, they can't chew their food – they have to swallow it whole. The process of breaking down the food takes place inside the bird in a specialized organ called the gizzard.

The gizzard is a very tough, muscular structure that grinds food. Seed-eating birds often swallow gravel that stays in their gizzards to make the gizzards more effective in breaking up food. Wild Turkeys have gizzards so powerful they can pulverize acorns, walnuts, and even steel needles!

Most raptors (carnivorous or meat-eating birds) use their sharp beaks and talons to pull apart their prey so they can avoid swallowing indigestible bones, feathers, and hair.

Owls, however, can't do this. They swallow their food whole as other birds do. The indigestible materials form a pellet in the owl's gizzard, with the bones on the inside and the hair and feathers forming a soft coating on the outside. Before eating again, the owl must cough up this pellet. Scientists can discover what owls have been eating by examining the contents of their pellets.


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