Turdus migratorius

owl pellet

The owl grips a thin branch of a walnut tree overhanging the driveway and regurgitates a large mass of hair and bones in the shape of its gizzard.

When an Owl is about to produce a pellet, it will take on a pained expression — the eyes are closed, the facial disc narrow, and the bird will be reluctant to fly. At the moment of expulsion, the neck is stretched up and forward, the beak is opened, and the pellet simply drops out without any retching or spitting movements.

I find it there the next morning, frozen solid. Tiny pelvises and femurs, jaw bones and vertebrae, and somewhere the miniscule bones from the inner ear. The owl doesn’t retch, no — owls are silent creatures, and besides, this is more like a turd, albeit one that travels in the wrong direction. I can imagine it making a quiet little blog.

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“Look for antennae,” says the note beside me on the table. It’s in my own handwriting. I scratch my head.

Nope, nothing there.

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I was listening to robins singing this morning while I drank my coffee. Despite their Latin name, Turdus migratorius, American robins are year-round residents throughout much of their range. They roam around in the winter in large gangs, foraging for wild fruit (Hercules’-club, sumac, fox grapes, etc.) and generally avoiding areas with heavy snow cover, so it’s common not to see them for a month or two at a time. And the wimpier ones do fly south, so I guess that’s how people started thinking of robins as the archetypal harbingers of spring. I liked what David Lynch did with that notion in Blue Velvet: at the end of this very strange movie about a small-town psychopath, a mechanical bird lands on a branch and the college-kid hero says, “Oh look! The first robin of spring!”

Although actually I prefer Gary Larson’s twist on the spring arrivals motif: bird bath in the foreground, typical Far Side fat kids with their eager faces pressed against the picture window, and their mother saying, “Look children! The slugs are back!” If you grew up in a family of nature nerds as I did, trust me, that’s hilarious.

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Yesterday, I got into a pointless argument with a friend about whether it was possible to be mildly obsessed. I said I thought mild obsession was the only kind I’ve ever experienced. Full-blown obsession is entirely too much effort.

Take these robins, for example. When they start singing, it is a sign of (very early) spring, because it means they’re starting to pair off and defend territory. But birders like to interpret their song as: “Cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.”

Yeah, right. Much more likely, they’re saying, “Look at me, look out, look out, look at me, look out!” There’s an obsessive quality to their singing that just isn’t captured by the first interpretation.

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There are at least two different web-based businesses built around the sale of owl pellets. I had no idea they were such a hot commodity. At Genesis, Inc.,

All of our owl pellets are from the Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and come from various locations. The majority come from the Pacific Northwest and are of the Highest Quality in the United States. Each pellet is inspected for quality and size. They are then heat treated and wrapped in aluminum foil. You can order 3 different sizes. The “SOP” are under 1.5″ and are usually between 1.25″ and 1.5″ in length. The next size are the “BOP’s”. These Owl Pellets are 1.5″ and larger. The BOP’s can contain pellets that are well over 2″ but will never be smaller that 1.5″. The BOP’s are the same pellets we fill our kits with and are the most common ones to order. The BOP’s are a great choice! If you can afford the price, the “JOP’s” are excellent! These owl pellets are 2″ and larger (may be limited to stock on hand).

The purchase of Owl Brand Discovery Kits help support humanitarian efforts around the globe.

Here is a highlight of just a few of the projects that you have helped OBDK participate in:

  • Funded 9 short term missionaries to a children’s home in Mexico
  • Promoting humanitarian outreach through our corporate structure
  • Participated in building hundreds of wells in Africa
  • Sponsored, coached, and managed more than 50 Little League players

All through the sale of barn owl pellets. Amazing.

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I saw something on a tech blog the other night that absolutely horrified me. At the top of each post, right under the title, there was an extra line displaying the word count, followed by an estimate of how many seconds it would take someone to read the post.

I mean, blog.

16 Comments


  1. Our overwintering throngs of Turdus Migratorius are vast! I think of them in the winter woods of our rhyolite hills, away from road and field. At a certain point it will dawn on me that I am in the midst of robins, in a body that drifts by galaxially, with borders that are impossible to know; there is a noticible gentle flow, a clockwork that proceeds by the ratchet of the occasional saltation.

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  2. Bill – Thanks for this report on the winter robin situation in Missouri. “Saltation” is a cool word in this context, and I can almost forgive you for using it instead of “hop,” or some such. But “galaxially”? My tongue has hard time with that one!

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  3. Aha, I see you snuck in a correction while I was writing my comment. But “galactically” has the wrong connotations, don’t you think? Sounds too science-fictiony to me.

    I mean, not to nit-pick or anything…

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  4. No! I welcome the familiar attention of the nit-pick!
    I’m glad you think there is something in my description worth refiguring. Yes my metaphors tend to the outsized, but these robin herds are vast-seeming. I don’t have a good replacement for galactic. I would guess the robins are in the thousands. I would really have to do a studied estimate, but I have a fear it would take hours for the robins to pass. Who knows! Have you heard of aviphagous mediterranean peoples who put up nets at the ends of alleys of olives and drive thrushes into them. I might be embellishing, but I think it would be done in hours crepuscular.

    Now I am not the poet; I was just having a nice moment of nostagia, which I think your definition of a few days ago might have got wrong, at least as such things pertain to me. Could it be that nostalgia is not a longing for a sitiuation which one hasn’t the means to effect (for who could possibly put certain things into effect), but is a remembered situation one hasn’t the means to describe! A proper description could by a deliverence from nostalgia, transforming soggy memories into blued-steel* grammar.

    If that’s so, I’ll stay nostalgic, happily enough. I did like the serendiptious “ratchet”, though.

    *My neighbor talks of producing blued steel by burying it wrapped in fresh opposum skin.

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  5. “At the top of each post, right under the title, there was an extra line displaying the word count, followed by an estimate of how many seconds it would take someone to read the post.”

    I confess to checking this sort of thing whenever I’m having trouble with a writing project. I use the Unix command line program “wc” which gives line count, word count, and letter count. You can use this sort of data to calculate reading grade level, too. It’s oddly accurate.

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  6. Well, what do you know.. mail order owl pellets. That’s a new one on me. Up here, some friends in the area have watched over-wintering robins feeding on fish in a small creek. I guess they consider fish to be a suitable winter replacement for worms and the like. Word counts and the time to read a blog post. Obviously, they aren’t taking into account people like me who have slow dial-ups and read part of a post while something else downloads, then part of something else, and “Oh, yah, I meant to leave a comment there, but had 4 tabs open and forgot to write something.” Warning: I read blogs in a sort of confusing postmodernist way.

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  7. Bill – I’m not sure your definition of nostalgia is any more accurate than mine, but if it works for you, that’s fine. Unfortunately, nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.

    I do hope your neighbor at least eats the poor possums. Otherwise, that could be construed as downright disrespectful.

    Rebecca – I can see why a writer might like to know that kind of thing. But to foreground it for readers? I don’t *want* people readding my stuff that quickly. If their time is that valuable, they can go elsewhere.

    bev – I understand – I used to do the same thing befor last August. I’m sure you’ll get high-speed access sooner or later! That’s very interesting about the robins feeding on fish.

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  8. As per “Spring Arrivals”: if you don’t mow your lawn, why is it not a thicket? I would love to see a snake ball. I would also love to stop mowing, but am not allowed to do so due my wife’s fear of copperheads, even though I am the only one ever to have been bitten. I repeatedly protest: “But Dave Bonta doesn’t mow his lawn”! Copperheads end the discussion.

    And thanks for bringing me to this, from an online latin dictionary:

    The root of turdus started out as *trozdos “thrush”, but the [r] and the vowel metathesized, i.e. changed places, in Latin. In Germanic languages these two sounds held their positions and produced English thrush, German Drossel “thrush”, with the diminutive suffix -el, and the Russian word, drozd “thrush”.

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  9. Fascinating. A friend of mine made tiny sculptures out of owl pellets. She placed them in assorted boxes & presented them like little fetishes.

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  10. How to prove you have too much money and no taste: buy owl pellets and store them in your classic car.
    Axially works.

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  11. Bill – It’s not a thicket thanks to our friends the white-tailed deer.

    Thanks for the philology – good stuff.

    Dick – Your friend sounds like someone I’d like to meet!

    Phil – Well, I can’t think of a better use for an automobile myslef.

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  12. Robins, in flocks, avoiding the snow? What do you put on your Christmas cards? ( yes yes, I know and the European robin is in fact a chat… nearly mistyped ‘cat’ there which would have been extreme nonsensicality…)
    To your other dialer-upper, I find the time it takes Via negativa to download in its entirety very useful for making a cup of tea, putting away the drained dishes from last night, preparing that day’s lessons on modals of probability etc etc
    So that’s what it would take fro a girl to capture your interest huh? Present you with a sculpted fetischistic owl pellet in a box?
    Back soon!

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  13. Glad to hear it’s worth the wait. That’s just about the best compliment one can get in this medium where brief attention spans seem to rule.

    So that’s what it would take for a girl to capture your interest huh? Present you with a sculpted fetischistic owl pellet in a box?

    Not quite all, but it would certainly help.

    Reply

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