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Today's word on journalism

March 17, 2009

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1863-2009

"Can Seattle's oldest newspaper be successfully transformed into a child of the information age? The Northwest is a land of big dreams. With the demise of the Soviet Union, one quipster noted that Puget Sound is now home to three empires still bent on global dominion: Microsoft, and Starbuck's. If the stars align properly and with a quality product, Seattle will show the way to a new model for journalism of the written word."

--Joel Connelly, columnist, in today's final print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Owl pellets aren't gross -- they're educational

By Jason Sanders

Oh, the scores of “firsts” you can experience at college. For many, it’s the first time living away from home, the first significant other, the first time pulling an all-nighter, and what about this first: dissecting an owl pellet to search for skeletal mice parts? That was the case today for students enrolled in Living with Wildlife.

Instructor Robert Schmidt gave his students two simple instructions: don’t lick your fingers and enjoy the discovery. And with that, students dove dived right into the world right into the world of owl pellets.

Many lessons came to light. First: a pellet is not poop. It’s actually much worse-it’s puke. However, it’s very necessary puke. Owls typically swallow their prey whole and their stomachs can’t digest everything; thus, the birth of the pellet. It’s basically a collection of fur, feathers, bones and other specimen that the owl regurgitates hours later. The charcoal-gray pellet sizes up comparably to the human thumb and it smells like… well, like an owl pellet.

Second lesson: be very careful when handling bones of the rodent family. With tweezers and a metal toothpick like instrument, the students delicately dismembered the pellet. And with even the slightest jerk of the wrist a bone could break. The key was slow and steady prodding.

Many exciting discoveries ensued: skulls, jawbones, legs and certainly the unknown. The class received a “bone-sorting” handout for the less obvious structures, and in no time students were also collecting hips, ribs and shoulder blades.

It was more common than not to find several of the same bone structures in one pellet. In fact one student collected eight skulls in his pellet alone-a new class record.

And the third lesson: owl pellets aren’t gross after all; rather, they’re fascinating educational tools. Several students walked away having learned valuable lessons about the ecosystem. “I guess I finally understand why we have rats,” said Kara Brown, a junior majoring in Social Work.

Anatomizing owl pellets proved to be a profitable “first” for many. And that begs the question, what will college bring next? Whatever it is, it surely won’t be as hair-raising as owl pellets.



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