Approximately a year and a half ago I had the good fortune to run into Dan Tompsett aka Owlster Bierce in a writing circle. I enjoyed his humor and wit with word, but also became intrigued by one of his hobbies which is collecting owl pellets. I thought an interview with Dan would be a great idea, and it went something like this:
Photo by Dan Tompsett
Tracie: How did you become interested in owl pellets?
Dan: One day I was walking around our property here in the countryside, and saw some gray things on the ground. I remembered reading something about owl pellets several years ago, so I wondered if that was what I found. I did a search of google images, and came to the conclusion that was what they were. I'm always looking for stuff to sell on Ebay because no one will give me a damn job, so I checked, and sure enough--pellets were being offered on Ebay for as much as $5 each. I immediately went back outside and searched the grounds of our 3-acre property and found about a dozen more pellets. I then took photos of them and put them on Ebay. They sold right away. I was stoked! I found more pellets under trees around the neighborhood and sold those "owl pellets," too. As it turned out, what I was finding and selling as "owl pellets" were actually hawk pellets. Ooops! Fortunately, none of the Ebay buyers knew the difference, either.
Tracie: What exactly is an owl pellet? Is it an equivalent of a cat's hairball?
Dan: Owl pellets are sort of like a cat's hairball. Something like 50 different birds and other animals regurgitate "pellets." I have collected American Kestrel (North America's smallest falcon) pellets, too. Barn owls swallow their prey whole. They digest the flesh and innards, then the bones and fur form into a ball. The barn owl, unlike other owls, has a natural enzyme that coats the pellets. This makes the pellets smoother than pellets of other owls. Barn owl pellets have a somewhat shiny sheen on the surface, whereas horned owl pellets have a furry, looser texture. The barn owl pellets have a much longer 'shelf-life' than horned owl pellets, which fall apart much more quickly.
Tracie: What came first, the interest in the Owls, or interest in the pellets?
Dan: I have always been interested in birds. I do think owls are some of the more interesting birds. I don't get very excited about robins and Starlings.
Tracie: How long have you been collecting pellets?
Dan: I have been collecting off and on for about three years.
Tracie: Do you have to dry them out before shipping them out?
Dan: Very fresh pellets, or ones wet from rain or snow need to be dried before shipping. A very smelly mold can quickly grow on them if packed or stored wet. I also microwave sterilize the pellets before packing for shipment.
Tracie: Are certain times of the year better for collection of the pellets? Certain places?
Dan: Late Fall through Winter are probably the best times to search for new areas because Barn Owls like to roost in pine trees. It's easier to spot pines from a distance after the other trees have lost their leaves. Other than that, owls usually stick around throughout the year. It gets pretty cold here and sometimes it snows, so Spring and Summer are more enjoyable as far as comfort is concerned.
Tracie: Have you ever found some unique things while searching for pellets?
Dan: When looking for pellets in barns and other structures I've come across a lot of old farm equipment. That would be "unique" to most city folk, but fairly common around here. I've come across coyotes, a badger, owl talons and skulls. One time while collecting pellets beneath a barn owl nest in a stack of hay bales I climbed up to the entrance of the nest and was face-to-face with 5 or 6 nestlings. They kept their large eyes on me while they moved their heads back and forth and hissed at me. I've gotten pretty close to Horned Owl nestlings, too.
Tracie: You came across a badger! I bet that was an experience! What did you do with the skulls?
Dan: It was the first and only badger I have seen. I watched it run in a direction towards me and to my left. The area was rocky. It vanished down a large rocky hole. As for the owl skulls: It's illegal to have most wild bird feathers and other body parts, so I usually leave them where I find them. I did take a barn owl skull once and took a few photos of it. I eventually sent it to a teacher who had purchased some owl pellets from me.
Tracie: What do people use the pellets for?
Dan: Teachers use them to teach students about the food chain and such. The students dissect the pellets then try to reconstruct the skeletons of mostly rodents from the bones they find and identify what kind of rodent it was. Sometimes bird bones and skulls are found in pellets, too. Artists use pellet bones and schools for projects, and sometimes Wiccans want them. I'm not sure what they do with them. Maybe place them on alters or something.
Tracie: Does the size of the owl always guarantee the size of the pellets?
Dan: No. I have seen very young owls regurgitate huge pellets. Pellet size is probably determined by what and how much they ate the day before.
Tracie: You have recently moved locations haven’t you? How is the new place for treasure hunting?
Dan: I went to Las Vegas for about 6 months, recently. I didn't do much pellet hunting there. I found about 75 beneath holes in dirt/sand bluffs at the edge of the desert. I'm back in my old stomping grounds in Idaho, now, but hunting has been slow because I don't drive and the driver I had is still in Vegas. I need to find another driver.
Tracie: In the desert the owls burrow in holes? I never knew that!
Dan: Yes. Holes in rocks, trees, or pretty much anything at least 15 feet or so off the ground are used as nesting sites. I know a guy who actually believed barn owls didn't exist until man built barns. LOL.
Tracie: How do you tell the difference between hawk and owl pellets?
Dan: Hawk pellets are usually larger, much lighter weight, softer, more rectangular shaped than oblong, and have very few bones. The digestive fluids of hawks are much stronger than that of owls, so almost all their prey is digested. Their pellets are virtually all fur, although there can be a few bones.
Tracie: What are your favorite birds? Why?
Dan: Chicken. Yum! Kidding aside; I'm partial to small, colorful songbirds such as warblers. Not sure why.
Tracie: I know you sometimes come across big wasp hives while you are out there searching. I was impressed and thankful for the one you sent me. Have you come across any more of those?
Dan: Only a few egg cells. Finding large hives is luck. They can be anywhere. Hard to look for them, at least as far as I know. I have noticed some people find a lot of them in the Midwestern states. Someone in Wisconsin has several of them on Ebay at times. They fetch good prices, too. Depending on size, shape, and condition they go for between $25 and $100 each.
Tracie: How would someone get a hold of you if they wanted owl pellets?
Dan: They would have to run real fast and catch me. (Just kidding). I can be found on Facebook using the monicer "Owlster Bierce," or they can search Ebay for "earthmonger2010," then send me a message if I don't have pellets listed. I have 42 pellets on Ebay at the moment.
Excellent! Thanks Dan for your time and all the information you have provided on this interesting and unique hobby. I wish I lived closer so I could join you on a feathery treasure hunt taking photos while we go. I’ll drive!