TOP 10 Reasons to go to the International Festival of Owls
10. It's the only full-weekend, all-owl event in North America.
9. Ya, sure, you betcha. We're Minnesota nice here.
8. Have a hoot learning about owls.
7. You've got to see the owl face pancakes and other owl themed food to believe it.
6. Where else can you sing "happy hatch-day" to a Great Horned Owl and not get thrown into the looney bin?
5. There's no age limit on having your face painted like an owl (or all the other fun kids activities.)
4. Let the experts call in wild owls for you.
3. See at least six or more species of captive live owls.
2. Meet some of the world's top "owlologists" at the banquet and World Owl Hall of Fame award presentation. (It's kind of a "hoo's hoo" of owl people.)
1. What else is there to do in Minnesota in early March???
Many people think it would be fun to have an owl for a pet, but few people have any true comprehension of what is involved in caring for one.
It is illegal to keep owls without special permits in most countries. Some countries issue permits to individuals to keep owls after necessary training and proper facilities have been built. The United States does not allow private individuals to keep native owls as pets--they may only be possessed by trained, licensed individuals while being rehabilitated, as foster parents in a rehabilitation facility, as part of a breeding program, for educational purposes, or certain species may be used for falconry in some states (although they rarely make good falconry birds.) Even in these instances, the person licensed to keep the owl does not "own" the bird--the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service retains "stewardship" of the birds so that they may recall them at any time if permit conditions are not being met.
Alice the Great Horned Owl is in a bit of an interesting situation. She works at the Houston Nature Center, which is staffed by a single individual. The facility isn't staffed seven days a week, nor is there a secure location for her to stay overnight, so Alice lives at the home of her licensed handler, Karla Bloem. Alice was injured so young that she grew up thinking she's a person and considers Karla to be her mate. As a result, she gets lonely and gives begging calls if housed in a pen outdoors.
Through a series of baby steps, Alice eventually moved into Karla's home. This involved all kinds of modifications to make the situation safe and healthy for Alice. It also allowed Alice to freely interact with Karla, and presented the unique opportunity for Karla to conduct the first-ever vocal study on Great Horned Owls. It has also given Karla a very unique perspective on why owls don't make good pets.
10. Taking a vacation or going on a business trip is difficult. You can't just take the owl with you (especially since in the United States permits are usually needed every time you cross state lines.) It takes a trained person to take care of an owl, and if you have a human-imprinted owl like Alice, they may be aggressive with anyone else who comes to take care of them. Owls also like routine, so disruption to the normal scheme of things is very stressful for them.
9. Owls can be very destructive. They have a natural killing instinct that can be applied to blankets, pillows, clothing, stuffed animals, and just about anything else that can be shredded. Talons are also really bad for woodwork. They bring out the natural grain of the wood really well as they strip off the finish.
8. Mating season involves a lot of all-night racket. Remember, owls are active at night, so that's when they'll be hooting and calling during mating season. Since she thinks she's a human, Alice directs her hooting at Karla, and Karla is expected to hoot with her. Alice can get quite crabby if Karla doesn't spend time hooting with her several times a day (early morning and late evening) during this time of year. If you have neighbors nearby, they won't be very happy about the noise.
7. Owls don't like to be petted and cuddled. Captive owls still retain their natural instincts, and traditional "petting" doesn't generally fit into the owl scheme of things. Even though Karla has lived with Alice since 1998, Alice still bites if Karla tries to pet her on the back.
6. Owls are high maintenance. They require daily feeding, cleaning, and attention, especially human-imprinted owls like Alice. Owls that are capable of flying need to be flown regularly, or housed in very large cages where they can get adequate exercise.
5. Owls are long-lived. A Great Horned Owl could live 30 or more years in captivity if things go well. Small species could live 10 years. Taking on the care of an owl is a long-term commitment.
4. Beaks and talons are sharp. If an owl doesn't like what you're doing, it's going to let you know. And you might wind up bleeding because of it. It's also easy for an owl to scratch you even if they aren't trying if they step up onto your gloved fist but stand off the side of the glove on your bare arm.
3. Owls need specialized care. Most veterinarians don't have the necessary training to properly care for owls, so you'd need to find a vet who's comfortable working with an owl. And you as a caregiver need to know quite a bit about owl health also, including what "normal" poop looks like, which very subtle behaviors might indicate health problems, provide proper perching surfaces, a healthy diet, appropriate housing, and regular talon and beak maintenance. There is a LOT to know, which is why proper training is normally required before permits are issued.
2. Feathers, pellets, and poop! Owls molt thousands of feathers every year, and they wind up everywhere. Owls throw up pellets of fur and bones wherever they happen to be at the time. And poop happens. A lot. In addition to "regular" poop (like most birds), owls also empty out the ceca at the end of their intestines about once a day. This discharge is the consistency of chocolate pudding, but smells as bad as the nastiest thing you can imagine. And it stains something awful. Keeping owls involves non-stop cleaning.
1. FOOD. You can't just go down to the local grocery store and buy Owl Chow. Owls are strict carnivores and require diets of whole animals for proper health. For Alice, that translates into her own chest freezer stocked with pocket gophers, rats, rabbits, and mice. Each day Karla thaws an animal for her, removes the organs Alice won't eat, and serves it up for Alice. Leftovers from the previous day must be located and removed, as owls like to cache (or hide) leftover food for later. If you're not prepared to thaw and cut up dead animals every night of your life for 10 years or more, you aren't up for having an owl.
The International Festival of Owls originally started as a "hatch-day" party for Alice the Great Horned Owl in 2003. Alice is a permanently injured, human-imprinted owl who works at the Houston Nature Center. Since she's the only live animal at the center and lives at the home of her handler, she quickly became the center of attention. The "hatch-day" party idea served several purposes:
The first festival was a wonderful success, even with little advertising. It turns out that no one else was doing anything like it in North America. The only thing close was a one day Burrowing Owl Festival in Cape Coral, Florida.
Our festival rapidly grew into the only full-weekend, all-owl festival in North America. People started coming from all over North America to attend.
Then we created the World Owl Hall of Fame to bring recognition to owls and humans doing amazing things to make this world a better place for owls. This brings award winners from all over the world to Houston, and gets equally widespread media coverage.
The 2016 festival attracted approximately 2,100 people (which is pretty good considering that Houston isn't exactly close to any major population centers and only has a population of 979!)
Festival attendees have come from all over the United States, Canada, Jamaica, England, Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Nepal, Taiwan, Kenya, and South Africa.
The International Festival of Owls is held annually the first weekend in March, which is about when Alice the Great Horned Owl hatched in Antigo, Wisconsin. It takes place throughout Houston MN.
The Festival was operated by the Friends of the Houston Nature Center until 2015 when it was taken over by the International Owl Center. The Center is an outgrowth of the Festival itself.
My absolute favorite part of the owl festival is the Hall of Fame. Some of the most prestigious owl biologists in the world come to Houston to receive their awards, and it's awesome to be able to give them a little recognition for the fabulous work they're doing.
-Karla Bloem, festival coordinator
We fell in love with Houston, MN and its community spirit.....You have solid community support, phenomenal participation by youth (we could hardly believe thirty-seven participants in the owl calling contest!)....Great pancake breakfast at the Lutheran church with friendly people.
-Dr. C. Stuart Houston, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Alice the Great Horned Owl
Early March 1997 - Alice hatches in an old squirrel's nest with her brother at the top of a 60 foot tall pine tree on Hogan Street in Antigo, WI
Late March or early April - Falls out of nest and breaks left wing just above the elbow joint. Cared for by internationally known wildlife rehabilitator Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. Wing cannot be healed well enough for flight due to location of fracture/dislocation.
Spring/summer 1997 - Raised to be an education bird in Gibson's home so she will be comfortable around humans.
9 September 1998 - Gets a job working for the up-and-coming Houston Nature Center after a federal work permit is secured. Moves to Houston, MN to live with handler, Karla Bloem. Housed in an outdoor pen.
24 November 1998 - Begins doing public educational programs.
1 October 1999 - Alice's first radio interview on KG Country in Winona. Chitters in microphone like a pro.
21 December 1999 - Lonely in outside pen and somewhat ill, so moved into Karla's home.
25 May 2000 - Begins commuting to work at the temporary Houston Nature Center
11 November 2000 - Alice's first real territorial hoot
17 March 2001 - Alice visits her nest site, rescuers, and Gibson in Antigo, WI. Seems to recognize nest tree and yard.
Summer 2001 - Houston Nature Center is constructed. Much controversy. Some adversaries talk of shooting Alice, and children are overheard in daycare playing "shoot the owl." A local conservation officer is contacted, but says he can do nothing because Great Horned Owls are specifically not protected by state law in Minnesota. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Enforcement claims they can do nothing unless Alice is actually shot. Local law enforcement deals with the issue.
2002 - West Nile Virus sweeps across United States. Since it is fatal to Great Horned Owls, Alice now becomes an indoor bird with a perch in the nature center office.
22 February 2003 - The annual Festival of Owls, in honor of Alice's hatch-day, begins in Houston, MN
January 2004 - First TV interview on UPN-TV 23 in La Crosse, WI
5 June 2004 - Alice's first kill--a camel cricket in Karla's kitchen
November 2004 - Alice News blog begun.
Spring 2005 - Testifies before the Minnesota House & Senate Environment committees for removal of Great Horned Owls from Minnesota's "unprotected birds" list. Passes unanimously and is signed by governor. Law takes effect August 1.
1 August 2005 - The first Great Horned Owl permit in Minnesota is issued to Alice.
5 January 2009 - Alice lays her first egg. She eats it three days later. She lays and incubates eggs properly every year thereafter.
6 March 2010 - Alice receives the World Owl Hall of Fame's Lady Gray'l Award
April 2011 - Alice is filmed as a close-up double for wild Great Horned Owls to appear in a film by Fergus Beeley on Snowy Owls. The Great Horned Owl part didn't make the final cut, however.
Fall 2011 - Alice appears in an episode of "Pets 101" featuring nocturnal animals on Animal Planet.
Favorite food: pocket gopher heads
Hobbies: wildlife watching, shredding egg cartons, and hooting at the wild neighbor owls
Alice's Handler (a.k.a. Karla Bloem)
The Short and Sweet Bio
Karla Bloem, a.k.a. "The Owl Lady," is the Director/Naturalist of the Houston Nature Center in Houston, MN. She lives and works with Alice, a permanently injured Great Horned Owl who forever changed her life when she came to live with Karla. The close relationship between Karla and Alice has led to an in-depth vocal study on Great Horned Owls, an annual International Festival of Owls, and plans for an International Owl Center in Houston, MN. Karla's owl adventures have taken her to testify before the Minnesota House and Senate environment committees to gain protection for Great Horned Owls in 2005, to present her research in The Netherlands, Germany and Argentina, and won her a Bush Leadership Fellowship in 2008.
The Dry, Boring Version
June 1990 - Valedictorian of Spring Grove (MN) High School's class of 1990.
1990-94 - Attended Luther College in Decorah, IA, and worked as the assistant museum curator in the Hoslett Museum of Natural History. Graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
September 1994 - Published a research paper on the vocal behavior of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks in the Prairie Naturalist.
1994-98 - Worked as a seasonal naturalist at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park near Preston, MN.
1995-96 - Worked as an instructor/naturalist at the Forest Resource Center (now Eagle Bluff) in Lanesboro, MN.
1995-99 - Flew American Kestrels as a licensed falconer.
1997 - Began planning the new Houston Nature Center on a part-time basis for the City of Houston.
1998-present - Acquired Alice the Great Horned Owl through an educational permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and began presenting educational programs with her.
2000-present - Hired on full-time as the Director/Naturalist of the Houston Nature Center.
2001 - Co-authored the Birder's Guide to Houston County with Fred Lesher.
2001 - Received the Brother Theodore Voelker Award for Special Achievement in Field Ornithology/Birding from the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union.
Spring 2002 - Co-authored an article documenting the first nesting record of a Eurasian Collared-Dove in Minnesota in The Loon.
2003-present - Coordinator of the annual International Festival of Owls in Houston, MN.
2004 - 2009 - Operated a website and internet store to benefit owls.
2004 - Began research to document the complete vocal repertoire of the Great Horned Owl and look for regional and gender variations in territorial hooting.
Spring 2005 - Testified before the Minnesota House and Senate Environment Committees to get Great Horned Owls removed from Minnesota's "unprotected birds" list. The bill passed unanimously and went into effect on August 1, 2005, with Alice receiving the first Great Horned Owl permit in Minnesota.
2006 - Received the Hall/Mayfield Award from the Wilson Ornithological Society to help fund vocal study.
2007 - Presented vocal study research at the World Owl Conference in The Netherlands.
2008 - Received a Bush Leadership Fellowship to work toward developing an International Owl Center in Houston, MN.
2009 - Technical editor for the book Intriguing Owls by Stan Tekiela.
2010 - Expert owl blogger for the Minnesota Bound owl cam.
2011 - Consultant on Great Horned Owls for a film on Snowy Owls produced by Fergus Beeley.
2011 - Presented vocal study research at the annual A.G. Eulen conference in Germany.
2013 - Presented vocal study research at the I Worldwide Raptor Conference in Argentina.
2014 - Presented vocal study reserach at the Festival dei Gufi in Italy.
2015 - Presented vocal study research at the Landelijk Uilendag in The Netherlands.
World Owl Hall of Fame Award Presentations (early March)
The World Owl Hall of Fame recognizes both owls and humans from around the world who have done amazing things to make this world a better place for owls. Judging takes place in August, and winners are made public in January. Recipients often travel from foreign countries to Houston, Minnesota to receive their awards and speak at the International Festival of Owls.
Whenever a new owl book or movie is released (Harry Potter, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, etc.)
This an important time to stress that owls do not make good pets. Most kids naturally love owls, and having them brought to the forefront through an owl book or movie release always results in an increase in people wanting owls for pets.
Alice is a perfect example of why owls don't make good pets. Not only is it illegal for people in the United States to have a native owl species for a pet, there are a lot of good reasons behind the law. See the article here in the Press Room for information about why owls don't make good pets.
Owl fledging time (April-June)
This is the time of year when young owls fledge, or leave the nest. Owls nearly always leave the nest before they can fly, and their bodies are still fuzzy at this stage (although they have fully developed wing feathers and short tail feathers.) Many people who come across a fledgling owl assume something is wrong and pick it up to get help for it. Inadvertently these perfectly healthy owlets are made into orphans by these kind-hearted people. Fledglings will spend a few days to a couple of weeks (depending on the species) on the ground, in low branches, or climbing back up into trees (they can climb trees!) before they can fly well. Mom and Dad are usually close by watching to make sure they are fed and cared for during this time. There is more information here in the Press Room about what to do about sick and injured owls.
How much money does the International Festival of Owls generate?
The festival nets about $16,000 per year. The International Owl Center nets approximately $4,000 from merchandise sales. These figures do not include what is raised at the pancake breakfast, the Saturday lunch, or any of the money spent at area businesses.
Why did you start a World Owl Hall of Fame?
The World Owl Hall of Fame was started to bring recognition to individuals who have dedicated their lives to owls, and to very special individual owls who, in partnership with their humans, have done much to help their kind. The hall of fame was North American in scope the first year, and expanded to a global level in 2007.
What is it about owls?
Biologically speaking, the forward facing eyes of owls give them a somewhat human look that may capture people's attention and imagination. But there's something more than that, something that's nearly impossible to define. Owls have held a significant place in most cultures throughout time--sometimes revered and sometimes feared--but they played a strong role either way. Our culture is no exception. If it was, this festival would not draw over half of its attendees from outside the local area!
How long will Alice the Great Horned Owl live?
It's always hard to say. Captive education birds have been known to live into their early 30s, but 20s are more normal. At age 18 or 19 she started developing arthritis in her bad elbow and in her knees, so she doesn't work as much as she used to.