The International Owl Center in Houston, Minn., was hatched from an owlet that fell out of a nest in Wisconsin. Karla Bloem, executive director of the center, began studying the vocalizations of the great horned owl, named Alice, and soon found that there was very little research on the subject.
Through the Houston Nature Center, Bloem began teaching the public about owls, and a “hatch-day” party for Alice one March turned into the International Festival of Owls. People come from all over the country to the town of about 1,000 for the festival, and the Owl Center officially opened to the public during this year’s event. Bloem says it’s the only such center in the country focused on owl education and open to the public.
The center will hold an open house on Sunday, May 17, with free admission, owl-themed refreshments like edible owl pellets, and a chance to meet the owls in residence and learn about owls in the wild.
If you can’t make it on Sunday, stop in to the center’s arresting storefront (you can’t miss the giant owls staring at you) in Houston during regular hours, 10-4 Friday-Monday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for kids 4-17 and free for members and kids under 3. Houston is about 2 ½ hours from the Twin Cities, and a fine weekend plan could also include a trip to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha.
Bloem’s research on owl vocalization continues, along with a study of great horned owl nesting, and she has drawn in citizen researchers from around the world to watch several owl cams and record observations in a Google database. “When people start learning about owls, they want to help them,” she said.
The stories of the owls that live at the center also draw people into the effort to help owls thrive. Owl Center resident Timber, a barred owl, was left for dead after a chainsaw went through his nest cavity in a dead tree. His siblings were all killed and he was scalped, so couldn’t be rehabilitated and released. Because of his story, visitors learn how important dead trees are to owl habitat, and can change their own practices. They may also learn that if you want to get rid of mice and rats, you should use traps, not poison. Why? Owls are exceptionally good at catching rodents, and most great horned owls have some poison in their bodies from eating tainted meat.
Ruby and Rupert, two young great horned owls, fill out the inhabitants of the Owl Center. Ruby is famous for The Look, which can startle visitors and scare the kids, even though “she’s a sweetheart,” says Bloem. Her distinctive look was captured here by Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson.