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Some Lawmakers Unsettled Over Study of What Owls Spit Up

January 24, 1990

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ A state study of owls’ diets has unsettled some lawmakers who are queasy about spending $180,000 to learn more about the little hairy balls of indigestible bones, teeth and hair that owls upchuck.

″We can’t educate kids in our schools, and we’ve got a person studying the diets of an owl,″ said Rep. Ted Leverenz, who wants to cut off funding for the study.

But researchers said the Department of Conservation study of what owls eat during different seasons could help show how changes in the environment affect animals.

″We owe it to future generations to preserve as many species as we can. Without basic information, such as what they eat, it’s rather difficult to do that,″ said Russell Graham, an Illinois State Museum geologist and bone expert overseeing the study.

Since the three-year study began in July 1988, researchers have collected about 3,000 pellets made up of indigestible leftovers of what the owls ate.

Graham said the owls’ messy habit of spitting up pellets makes them the ideal bird for the study.

″With other birds, you’d have to watch them day and night to see what they’re eating or shoot them and dissect their stomachs, which is not too conservation-minded,″ he said.

The pellets have revealed that owls eat rabbits, opossums, ducks, pheasants, cardinals, shrews, fish and mice and other rodents.

Pam Fortado Gibson, field coordinator for the study, said the information eventually could be used to help farmers reduce their dependence on pesticides.

″We have no knowledge of our natural pest control,″ she said. ″It would help farmers move away from using carcinogenic chemicals that pollute our streams.″

But Leverenz has an alternative explanation for the study.

″Apparently,″ he said, ″the owl was wiser than we were.″

The study also drew fire from would-be fiscal watchdogs in state government.

″I’ve heard of wastes of money, but this one really takes the cake,″ said Shawn Collins, a candidate for state comptroller. ″I don’t doubt the answers would be useful, but what are your priorities?″

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