Fourteen 10- to-14-year-olds sat around a table at Piney Run Park Nature Center last week carefully tweezing apart gray fur balls about two inches long.
"I've got a big rib cage," one said
"Hey, I've got another skull in here," said another.
"There's a piece of skull stuck in here," came the reply.
The children took the dissection seriously as they gently pried apart wads of indigestible bones and fur that barn owls cough up daily after dining on shrews, mice and voles.
Nobody said, "Oh, gross. Owl pellets."
Young people who come to the center's monthly ecology club meetings "tend to be kids who really like science and nature," said park naturalist Deanna Hofmann. She has seen many of them before at nature center programs for younger children.
Ms. Hofmann started the monthly ecology club, which met for the first time in February, because she didn't want to lose the children as they moved into upper grades.
"We want to continue the environmental message we try to instill in young children, and not have them just stop and go into baseball or whatever," she said.
Ms. Hofmann ordered the owl pellets from a Bellingham, Wash., company called Pellets Inc., which ships several hundred thousand of the sterilized, foil-wrapped gray mounds each year.
"There's quite a large demand for them," said Pellets Vice President Kim Gaussoin. "They've taken the place of live dissections."
Dissections of live animals such as frogs often prompt objections, Ms. Gaussoin said, but owl pellet dissections generate positive comments.
Owl pellets retail for $1.45 each. Pellets Inc. gets them from pellet gatherers who make the rounds of owls' nesting areas.
It would be possible to make a living collecting owl pellets, Ms. Gaussoin said. "People do generate income from this."
The youngsters at Piney Run, near Sykesville, removed bones from the fur but did not try to reassemble the skeletons. Ms. Hofmann suggested that the club members could take the bones home "and see if you can reconstruct a mouse or two."
Most of the pellets contained the bones of more than one animal. Meredith Jenkins, 9, of Mount Airy and her laboratory partner, Kristen Waagbo, 10, of Eldersburg found four skulls in one pellet.
Kristen ended the session by "just having fun, playing in the fur." She said she came because her mother is a former nature center employee and because "I like being here."
Meredith said poring over items an owl had eaten didn't bother her.
Anthony Ursone, 11, of Sykesville shrugged. "I've been in much worse," he said.
Ms. Hofmann taught the group that a bone Meredith described as "like a rocket" was a vertebra and that a shrew skull is distinctive because of its red-tipped teeth.
She said she wants to get the older children "more into concepts" such as energy cycles and food chains than is possible with younger children. She plans a club that will meet year-round and attract "kids who want to come back."