Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, a barn owl has just eaten a mouse.
Twelve hours from now, give or take, it will regurgitate a compact mass of fur and bones known as an owl pellet. The pellet will contain a near-perfect skeleton of the devoured rodent and a treasure trove of data for researchers, providing insights on the owl, its prey and the environment in which it lives.
Grade-school teachers use them to teach basic biological concepts. College students might be assigned to reassemble entire skeletons. Scientists use them to track prey animal populations and monitor pollutant levels.
How that pellet makes it from the gut of an owl and into a classroom begins with a wet “plop” as it hits the forest floor, setting off an unusual supply chain that stretches from the wooded expanses of the West Coast to schools, museums and research laboratories around the world, fueling an entire industry of people who’ve devoted their lives and livelihoods to this unique economic and ecological niche.
All birds of prey, including eagles, falcons and hawks, spit up pellets of the small animals they consume. But barn owls are special, said Bret Gaussoin, owner of Pellets Inc. based in Bellingham, one of several American companies devoted exclusively to owl pellets. Their weak digestive systems and tendency to swallow prey whole typically allow skeletons to be expelled “virtually intact,” he said.
Genia Connell, a third-grade teacher at Leonard Elementary School in Troy, Mich., says she uses owl pellets as part of her life-science curriculum.
“When the kids begin dissecting the pellets, they become so engaged and so vested in discovering what ‘their’ owl ate and comparing their findings with classmates,” Connell said. “If you’re that kid who discovers their owl ate three or four different animals in a single pellet, well then you automatically get hero status among the other 8-year-olds, at least for the hour!”
As Gaussoin tells it, the U.S. owl pellet industry took shape in the mid-1990s with the retirement of Irwin Slesnick, a biologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He pioneered their use as a classroom tool and for years had paid people to collect pellets from the wild. Gaussoin, a Western Washington biology student at the time, was among them.
He said he used to spend a lot of time watching for and trapping hawks. “One day I found a pile of owl pellets in the woods while I was looking for a Cooper’s hawk nest,” he said. He sold that first batch to Slesnick for $45, or about 40 cents apiece. He’s been collecting and selling them ever since.
When Slesnick retired, Gaussoin and many of his fellow collectors opened their own businesses. Today there are at least six dedicated owl pellet operations in the United States, nearly all based in the Pacific Northwest. Together they sell millions of owl pellets each year to learning institutions around the world.
“This is such an ethical way to teach science,” says Chris Anderson, who runs Owl Brand Discovery Kits, a pellet retailer in Tacoma. In the classroom, “nothing is killed or dissected in order to learn some of the same applications as a frog or cat or fetal pig. The hard work is already done by the owl.”
Gaussoin, who purchased Slesnick’s inventory in 1991, runs his business with his wife, Kim. They have two full-time employees and, like most in the trade, contract dozens of independent collectors in the region.
“We’ve had collectors running from grandmothers and grandfathers to people who, this is their full-time job,” Gaussoin said. “It’s like the world’s biggest paper route.”
Collectors typically visit a set number of reliable owl roosting sites once a quarter. “Top collectors may visit 300 or 400 sites three or four times a year,” Gaussoin said.
Rich Holman, a retired game warden in Idaho, has been gathering pellets for retailers for close to a decade. “It’s kind of a competitive thing, because you’re dealing with a finite resource,” he said. “Like morel mushroom hunters, everybody tries not to let out a whole lot of info about what they’re doing.”
Over the years, he’s developed relationships with a number of landowners who let him scour their properties for pellets. Most retailers pay by the pellet, from around a quarter for the small ones to nearly a dollar for the prized larger ones, which can run several inches in length and contain the remains of multiple prey.
In good years, Holman is able to deliver shipments of 1,000 or more pellets every few months. In turn, he gives his landowners “a bottle of whiskey or some elk jerky” by way of thanks.
It can be a challenge keeping up with the owls, who change their roosting habits based on prey populations and environmental factors. For a few years, for instance, local farmers were protecting their haystacks in the field by covering them with a loose tarp.
“The owls would climb up under those tarps and nest and live there,” Holman said. “They’d fly up and grab on like a bat on the side of the haystack and scurry up it.”
But eventually the farmers switched to tighter wraps that covered the entire stacks, and the owls moved on. “It’s an always-changing dynamic process,” Holman said. “You’ve just got to keep looking for new places as old ones are destroyed.”
“You have to follow the owls,” said Jorge Bedolla, who owns Oregon Owl Pellets, in Baker City. Bedolla is the rare retailer who does all of his pellet hunting himself. “In the summer time, it’s really hot so the owls go to the mountains. When there is snow, the owls come to the city and around the farms.”
Bedolla learned about owl pellets in 2009, when he was working odd jobs on a farm after being laid off from a lawn-care company. A woman had stopped by and asked permission to search for owl pellets. She and Bedolla got to talking about the trade, and she relayed how she earned $300 in her first pellet paycheck. He started hunting for pellets soon after, and eventually turned it into a full-time business.
“I found this job when I didn’t have nothing,” he says. “And now it’s my perfect job. It was something like destiny.”
When Gaussoin gets a shipment from one of his collectors, he sorts the pellets by size and by region. He says he can tell where an owl pellet came from just by looking at it. Owls in wetter areas, like the Pacific Northwest, produce moist, loose pellets because they’ve got water to spare. Those from more arid areas, like parts of California, are drier, more compact. They’re also harder to dissect but show a greater variety of prey.
He also checks for signs of wool-eating moths, like the ones that occasionally invade sweater drawers. “The whole life cycle of that moth takes place consuming the fur that holds that pellet together,” Gaussoin says. “They are our biggest issue. That is what makes a bad owl pellet, when the moths have beaten me to the punch.”
Once they’re sorted, Gaussoin takes the pellets to an industrial space he rents, where he bakes them in a giant oven typically used for sterilizing glass. The sanitized pellets are then individually wrapped in foil and shipped to customers. They run from $1.50 to $2.50 a piece, depending on size.
Most buyers are schools, museums and other institutions that use the pellets for science projects. But some clients have unexpected uses.
“Every single year I get an order from people who are making jewelry,” said Anderson, the owner of Owl Brand Discovery Kits. On Etsy, for instance, there are numerous vendors who make earrings, pendants and other trinkets from the tiny bones contained in the pellets.
There are also “people who use what they find in an owl pellet in their witchcraft rituals,” he added.
But the educational market makes up the overwhelming majority of the pellet trade.
The COVID-19 pandemic has cratered demand for owl pellets around the country as schools and other institutions of learning have shut down or moved to virtual instruction. “It has been devastating for us,” Gaussoin said. His average order has shrunk from thousands of pellets to just a handful since the educational pipeline dried up. Anderson also has seen a shift; orders are smaller, more along the lines of parents ordering pellet kits as an afternoon project for their kids.
Gaussoin says that as a company that deals with predators and their prey, they’re used to boom and bust times as populations rise and fall. “Barn owls, like many predators, are cyclical,” he says. “We’re collecting owl pellets from such a wide geographical region that we can weather those storms.”