ROCKINGHAM — About 20 kids are putting their minds to work this week at the 4-H Weird Science Camp in the N.C. Cooperative Extension Office.
Amanda Smith, volunteer instructor, explained what her group was doing Tuesday.
“Today is dissecting owl pellets and identifying the bones inside,” she said. “They get to either put it back together and glue it down, or they can make a new creature out of it.”
The activity was originally scheduled to take place at Leath Memorial Library, but was moved because of “the messy experiments,” according to Alyson Hoffman, 4-H youth development agent.
According to The Barn Owl Trust, “pellets are the undigested parts of a bird’s food, such as hair or bones, which are regurgitated (coughed up through the beak).”
“All those little pieces like that, those are bones.” said 9-year-old Wyatt Graves. “We’re going to reconstruct something — but an owl barfed this out.”
The young scientists worked in pairs, alone, or in larger groups comparing the contents of their owl pellets with bones illustrated on lab sheets.
Christian Stovall said he has enjoyed science camp so far, even if the rest of the week’s activities remain shrouded in mystery.
“Tiffanee, who works here, told me about it,” he said. “She got us some scholarships to come to the camps. It’s fun. Yesterday we did paper airplanes. I don’t really know what we’re doing the rest of the week. We’re sort of left on a cliffhanger, I guess.”
At a nearby lab table, a pair of students wearing clear gloves and using blue plastic forceps referred to a bone-sorting chart. They carefully removed the tiny pieces of bone from their owl pellets.
Maddie Grooms, 12, said the bones mostly belonged to rodents or smaller birds. Three pieces of similar-looking bone were laid on top of the illustration on the chart as she gestured to them.
“These are rodent skulls,” she said. “I got three babies and this one’s the mommy. This is the mommy rodent and these are the triplets.”
Her lab partner, 10-year-old Isaiah Smith, found the skull for the “mommy” rodent.
“She got the little ones,” he said, smiling.
Grooms held up what appeared to be a hairball hacked up by a cat — the intact remnants of what was once a whole owl pellet.
“This is about half the thing,” she explained. “Or maybe a fourth of it. Yesterday when we did the paper airplanes, I went through all of them and I got to help Ms. Amanda demonstrate how to make them. My favorite’s the Delta because it flies really fast. I learned that if (the airplane) is really heavy, the plane may go straight down. We made a loop plane, made of paper loops and a straw. I made one with three loops and it flew perfectly and it went spinning in the air.”
Grooms said she was born in Rockingham, but her family moved four years ago. They returned to their home town of Rockingham just in time for last Christmas, and Grooms said she could not be happier. But she had previous experience with owl pellets while she was in fourth grade in another town.
“When Ms. Amanda pulled out a big sheet, I automatically knew we were doing owl pellets,” she said. “Ms. Amanda’s last group, there was a little small group doing it. She said one of the kids almost threw up. This is my second time with owl pellets. This is awesome. I have six jaws now. Six.”
Asked whether there was any bone she especially wanted to find, Grooms pointed at the bone chart.
“Basically, all I wanted to find was skulls,” she said. “And I did. I found three of them. And I have about four hips. I always thought going to science camp would be awesome, and it is.”
As Amanda Smith began giving cleanup instructions before lunch, Graves whispered in an ominous tone, “You might want to leave after lunch. We’re going to demonstrate on snot.”
“We are going to make fake snot that they’ll be able to take home with them,” Amanda Smith explained. “It’s stretchy, it’s gooey and it’s not wet, so they can actually play with it and bring it home and stuff. We are going through the immune system after lunch, and it explains that snot can actually be useful instead of being such a bad thing. It helps the body defend itself and get rid of toxins and things like that.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.