Parts on the pavement

On the pavement near the Wetlands Overlook (12/10/11).

This (above) is what greeted me as I made my rounds during the morning of 10 December, a Saturday. Obviously, the white and beige colored splatters are bird droppings. But what bird, and what are the larger brown masses?

“Oh good,” I whispered to myself, “another mystery to solve.”

I thought at first that the brown blobs were flattened raccoon scat after being trod upon or run over by one of the Museum vehicles. But there weren’t any subsequent marks on the pavement on either side of the brown blobs caused by the next step of whoever may have stepped on them or by the rotation of a wheel moving over the area.

Getting closer I noticed that there were pieces of crayfish, what looked like small bones, some fur and even some grasshopper parts mixed in with the brown goo.

A closer look.
Crayfish claw (top center), grasshopper femur (just right of bottom center) and at least two tibiae (thin red objects on far left), and various other animal parts can be seen in this close shot.

These brown masses of exoskeleton, fur and other animal parts appear to be a pellet, although a very wet pellet. If you’ve had any grade school biology you may have taken apart an owl pellet before. Typically they are oval shaped objects, dark gray and full of fur and bones. They consist of the parts of animals that a hawk or owl can not digest and which is subsequently coughed up unto the ground. These owl pellets are usually rather solid objects and not wet, flattened masses, as what was before of me on the pavement.

Two grasshopper femurs. The one on the left looks like a Differential Grasshopper leg, the other could be the same or perhaps a Red-legged Grasshopper.
More leg parts of both crayfish and grasshopper and an insect wing, probably a grasshopper (just left of bottom center).

So what ate the grasshoppers, crayfish and whatever else was in the pellet and then sat in the tree above the pavement coughing up and pooping out the leftovers? I think we can eliminate a hawk. The local Red-shouldered Hawk would definitely eat all of the animals represented in the pellet but when hawks void themselves they lift their rear ends and shoot the excrement out at an angle. The splatters on the pavement do not indicate that they were applied at an angle. They appear to have been dropped straight down onto the pavement.

How about a Great Blue Heron? It’s certainly possible. Herons eat all of the above, and more. They cough up pellets. They defecate on our walking paths. What’s more, they do it in the manner displayed in the photos. But so do owls. And these pellets are large enough to have come from either a Great Blue Heron or a Barred Owl.

Great Blue Heron, stalking in the Wetlands.

I’m torn. I want it to be an owl that left these pellets. An owl is much more mysterious than a Great Blue Heron. You don’t see owls every day, unless you work with them as an animal keeper or are a bird rehabber. It’s much more romantic to think that the night before, maybe just a few hours ago, an owl had been sitting on the branch above. Perhaps it was sitting there on that same branch as a crayfish crawled out of the Wetlands, crossed the pavement, was spotted by the owl and scooped up and eaten on the spot. The owl then rested, preened, got rid of some extra baggage, then flew off into the woods at dawn to sleep away the day in a pine tree.

Barred Owl, resting in a pine tree.

As much as I’d like it to be an owl, it was probably a heron that left the stained macadam for me to find that morning. But, I still don’t know for sure. Both Barred Owls and Great Blue Herons are residents here at the Museum. Both have opportunity to eat the same foods and to sit in a tree above the path and cough up pellets. However, the more liquid nature of the pellet makes me lean towards the heron.

Who do you think left the grasshopper, crayfish, and other parts on the path through Explore the Wild?

2 responses to Parts on the pavement

  1. Meredith says:

    I agree, probably the Heron. But I think you have a future in writing children’s books based on your storytelling of the imaginary owl. And also, I will now picture you at all times sleuthing through Explore the Wild whispering “Oh good, another mystery to solve.”

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Thanks Meredith.
      And now I have a new mystery to solve, something about sycamores…

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