Years of killings led to massive pile of bones in Smyrna (an owl is the suspect)

Jim White was wrapping up a night of herping — the hobby of searching for and listening for local amphibians — when he stumbled upon an eerie sight near Smyrna.

Hundreds of rodent skulls and skeletons piled at the base of a barn owl box, evidence that the resident winged predators have been reaping the rewards of successful late-night hunts.

“I was looking for that,” said White, an expert birder and Delaware Nature Society staff member. “But that’s as many skulls as I’ve ever seen near a bird box. It’s pretty neat.”

Jim White, a New Castle County resident, birder, wildlife expert and staff member at Delaware Nature Society, snapped this photo of rodent skeletons found below a barn owl box in Kent County in mid-March 2019.

Jim White, a New Castle County resident, birder, wildlife expert and staff member at Delaware Nature Society, snapped this photo of rodent skeletons found below a barn owl box in Kent County in mid-March 2019. (Photo: Photo by Jim White)

“Neat,” huh?

White said it was just before dawn when he scanned the ground below an owl box at a state wildlife area near Del. 9 to see if the barn owls were using the man-made shelters.

He got his answer pretty quickly. Most of the skeletons were of a small mouse-like rodent called a meadow vole.

The morbid photo garnered hundreds of likes and shares on a local birding Facebook group, amazing White, who said he doesn’t get as much reaction for many of the much more colorful — and lively, literally — photos of birds that he shares from his time exploring the First State and beyond.

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A barn owl spreads its wings at Delaware Wild Lands’ Taylors Bridge Roberts Farm. (Photo: Delaware Wild Lands)

From their nests, barn owls regurgitate pellets from their fleshy meals, spitting up the bones and other impossible-to-digest pieces, like skulls. Over time, the pellets degrade and leave intact skulls behind, White said.

“And year after year they just build up,” he said.

White estimated this particular blanket of death was about 4 feet wide and was likely the result of at least two years of feasts.

“It’s amazing how much it was,” he said. “It is a little bit of a creep factor involved.”

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, mlauria@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.

This article originally appeared in Delaware News Journal on March 13, 2019. You can read it here.