The barred owl is one of the most common owls in Maine, according to the Maine Audubon. Photo courtesy of Doug Hitchcox/Maine Audubon

State wildlife officials are asking “backyard biologists” to help them learn more about Maine’s owls this spring.

As part of the “Maine Owl Pellet Project,” the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife wants the public to keep an eye out for owl pellets and mail them to the University of New England in Biddeford.

An owl pellet is the undigested remains – usually fur, feathers and bones – of the small animals eaten by owls. Unlike eagles and other birds of prey, owls swallow their food whole but are only able to digest the fleshy parts. After a night of hunting, owls regurgitate a pellet or two, which contains the remains of at least two entire skeletons in each pellet, according to wildlife officials.

Scientists hope to collect enough pellets to better understand the diet of Maine owls and the distribution of the small mammals that they prey on. The pellets would also help inform conservation efforts for the northern bog lemming – a small rodent listed as threatened since 1986.

Maine has several kinds of owls. The most common are the great horned owl and the barred owl, according to Maine Audubon staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox.

“Early spring is a good time to keep your ears open for their hooting in the evening, but they’ll begin to quiet down once they’re further into nesting,” he said.


The owl pellet program is new, said MDIWF spokesman Mark Latti, and is one of a growing number of projects aimed at getting volunteers involved.

“These citizen science projects engage a lot of interest in people, and they provide us with invaluable data,” Latti said. “We just completed a breeding bird atlas with hundreds of volunteers.”

Other recent citizen science projects include butterfly and bumblebee surveys. Members of the public shared where they were sighted and documented their activity.

“A couple of years ago, during the Maine Bumblebee Atlas, a volunteer discovered a bumblebee believed to be no longer in Maine,” Latti said.

The department is limited in personnel, so these projects are a win-win, he said.

For the owl project, pellets can be found in predictable locations, on the ground near where owls roost, according to the department. Pellets range in size from half an inch to four inches long, depending on how big the owl is. Pellets are shiny and black when they’re new and turn gray as they age.

Officials say anyone who finds an owl pellet and wants to help with the project should take a photo of the pellet and its surroundings, noting the location. Using gloves, collect the pellet and seal it in a plastic bag. Mail the pellet, along with a submission form, to the Maine Owl Pellet Project, Dr. Zach Olson, University of New England, 11 Hills Beach Road, Biddeford, ME, 04005.

More information about the program and the submission form can be found on the MDIFW website.

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