It’s a Mystery

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High winds and heavy rains always cause provisional things to tumble out of our trees—small branches and birds’ nests, but also errant Frisbees and Nerf darts and what’s left of a rope swing made for a child long since grown. When the rains finally let up recently, I wasn’t surprised to see an unfamiliar object on the deck outside my back door. By the time I found it, though, it was soaked, and in the near-dark I couldn’t quite make out what it was. I’ve seen both barred owls and Great Horned owls in this yard—could it be an owl pellet?

At slightly longer than three inches it was awfully big for one, though Great Horned owls have been known to regurgitate pellets that large. Its shape and color and its position on the back deck, just below a seventy-year-old maple tree plenty tall enough to attract an owl in search of a hunting perch, certainly pointed to that possibility. And yet: there were no bones in the outside layer, no teeth or beaks or claws poking up. Even on the outside, owl pellets almost always display some visible remainder of a meal.

When pictures on Google could neither confirm nor rule out the ID, I did what I always do when I’m confused: I posted the picture to Facebook and asked for help from the Tennessee Naturalists group where I often lurk.

They, too, thought it was likely too big to be an owl pellet. They too observed the lack of undigested body parts. And they noticed some other problems, as well: “The longer hairs don’t seem to be from their usual prey,” one naturalist observed. “The fur looks like deer,” noted another. “If you spot an owl taking out a deer, please record video.”

Naturalists can be real wags.

The discussion shifted to the possibility that this object had emerged from another kind of creature altogether—and from the other end of the creature as well: “For me, the lack of visible bones, the ‘looseness’ of the structure, especially with all the free hairs (though soaking rain might cause a pellet to soften and start to come apart), and what appear to be quite a few conifer needles (suggesting this animal was eating from the ground) have me leaning towards mammal scat,” wrote one of the naturalists. “None of these rule out pellet definitively though. The rounded shape does seem more like a pellet than a carnivore scat.”

The carnivore most likely to produce waste of this particular shape, size, and color is a coyote. Behind our house there’s a small patch of woods, a city easement of three or four acres that runs between the lots on our end of the street and the lots on a parallel street. One of my neighbors is convinced her dog was killed by coyotes in those woods. But the number of unmolested cats around here has always made me think that coyotes don’t live in our neighborhood so much as pass through it on occasion. Could one of those furtive creatures possibly be bold enough to relieve itself on our deck?

Out of nothing more than hope, I did a little more clicking around online and brought myself back to believing I had an owl pellet on my hands, and a really large one at that. “I think I’ll bring it in and let it dry out for a few days and then cut into it,” I told the naturalists. With a promise to post pictures documenting the dissection, I grabbed some kitchen tongs and went back outside to lift my prize onto a small saucer. As soon as I picked it up I knew it was too light to be any kind of dung. There was no doubt now—I’d found my first owl pellet!

I brought it inside and showed it to my husband. “Something wonderful fell out of the tree next to the deck,” I said. “Guess what it is.”

He looked at the drenched object I was holding out on a teacup saucer. A wary look crossed his face. He chose his words carefully: “What do you think it is?”

“I’m not absolutely sure, but I think it’s an owl pellet, most likely from a Great Horned owl. It’s awfully large for an owl pellet, even for an owl that big, but I’ve been looking at pictures online and it’s definitely….” By then he was visibly struggling for composure. I stopped. “What?”

“Remember this morning, when you thought the vacuum cleaner was busted? Turns out there was just a wad of stuff plugging up the hose.”

So.

Not deer fur: dog hair. Not evidence of a ground forager: Christmas-tree needles. And I couldn’t decide which was worse: disappointment or embarrassment.

Over on Facebook, the wags were amused: “A Hoover pellet,” wrote one. “A Hoover hooter pellet,” added another.