International Festival of Owls Draws Fans and Researchers from Around the Globe

I can’t believe I let the International Festival of Owls fly under my radar for so long (wink).  Going into its twelfth year, it doubles and nearly triples the gem of a town that is Houston, Minnesota. When I initially stumbled upon it I thought, “Wow, a festival completely devoted to one of the coolest animals, tucked away in our little corner of MN. That seems pretty unique.” And it is.  It’s the only all-owl festival in North America.  After a quick thought, though, I realized it wasn’t really that surprising. The Winona area has been a great place for festivals for years, some with specific niches. Shakespeare festival? Check. Beethoven festival? Yep. Film and music festivals? One just finished last month, the other is just around the corner in April.

To educated myself I thought I would go straight to the source, Houston Nature Center  Director/Naturalist, International Festival of Owls Coordinator, and owl chauffeur Karla Bloem.  If busy people have a full plate in front of them, Karla signed up for the three course special. She has been leading the way on the owl frontier with an innovative vocal study and breeding program, as well as her work in starting and growing support for the festival and the upcoming International Owl Center. She was kind enough to give up a bit of her time and humor me with a Q&A. If you’re not already planning on going, prepare to clear your weekend and keep reading.

Q: So, first off, simply “Why owls?”

We do the Owl Festival simply because Alice the Great Horned Owl is the only live animal at the Houston Nature Center and she was just plain so popular.

Q: The International Festival of Owls started as a Hatch Day Party for Alice in 2003 and has grown into an international event drawing in experts and attendees from around the globe in a 10 year span. That’s very impressive. How’d it all happen so fast?

Well, it didn’t seem fast at the time!  We just added a little bit each year.  The big step up was when we added the Hall of Fame.  The first year it was North American in scope since I didn’t have the confidence that we had enough international connections to get nominations from around the world.  The next year, though, I was willing to give it a shot and sure enough, we were able to get great nominations from all over the globe.  I realized we had to change our name from “Festival of Owls” to “International Festival of Owls” because people just assumed this was some cute little rinky-dink thing we did here at the Houston Nature Center…they didn’t grasp the international connections, the large attendance (1,800 in 2013), and that people fly/drive in from around the country to attend since it’s the only full-weekend, all-owl festival in North America.

Q: As the only staff at the Houston Nature center this seems like a big task for one person. I’m sure you had some help and the popularity of the festival has opened up more networks. Who are some important people that got the festival to where it is and who are you looking to connect with in the future?

Yes, there are a LOT of key people who make this event happen.  First, the board members of the Friends of the Houston Nature Center all take on lead roles in planning the event (and their spouses and kids help out too!)  Secondly, I have a part-time assistant through the Experience Works program, Connie Verse, and she is my right arm.  I couldn’t do this without her leadership and organizational skills.

The Houston Elementary School staff is critical to the Festival’s success.  They bend over backward to let us take over their entire building for the Festival, with teachers letting us totally take over their classrooms, every teacher making owl art to decorate the school with their classes, and Principal Rick Bartz always at the ready to make anything happen that we need to happen.  The school also lets us use their buses, with the drivers donating their time.  The City maintenance department always helps us with preparations.  The Lutheran Church puts on the pancake breakfast and the Boy Scouts do the nest box building.  And zillions of volunteers come out of the woodwork from Houston and all over to make this happen.  All told, we usually have about 150 volunteers who make this event happen.

The business sponsors, foundations, and donors are a critical part of making this event a success too, through both cash and in-kind donations.  I’m sure I’ve missed listing some of those involved, but you get the idea that this is an enormous community effort that extends beyond just Houston.  We are always looking to get more groups involved in the future, and I’d especially love to get an organization to put on some fun owl-themed athletic event on the Sunday of the Festival.

Q: How has Alice been dealing with her catapult into stardom? Are we waiting for a tabloid-style downward spiral into rehab or a peaceful life of a 9 to 5 at the Nature Center and some volunteering on the weekends?

Alice’s stardom leaves her a bit owly at times.  Camera crews poking their nose in on her when she’s incubating, staying awake when she’d rather be sleeping, important people pestering her at home…it’s a tough job.  She’s testified at the state capitol, she’s done the TV thing including Twin Cities stations and Animal Planet, her vocals have appeared on an Xbox Kinnect game and in a few movies, and she was even filmed as a double for a film (but don’t tell her she didn’t make the final cut.)  She’s a long way from retirement at only 17 years of age, so she’ll still be commuting to work for years to come (and being pestered by the media.)  Things should slack off for her a bit once the International Owl Center acquires some more education birds so she doesn’t have to shoulder ALL of the education work.

Q: This is a big fundraiser for the Houston Nature Center.  With the growth of the festival are there plans to grow the Center as well, or just maintaining and improving the quality of the facility and programs that you have?

The whole owl thing has taken on a life of its own, beyond the scope of the Houston Nature Center.  The next steps are to create an International Owl Center in Houston to continue to grow the owl program.  For whatever reason, there is currently no owl education center in North America, so we’re going to do it!  We hope to open the Owl Center in a temporary facility this summer when enough start up funds have been raised.

Q: The whole town of Houston really gets on board and turns out for the festival. How did you get the whole community involved?

I just asked.  As we grew and needed more help, I just kept asking more and more individuals, organizations and businesses to get involved.  And everyone had fun doing it.  I’m thankful that Houston is such a volunteer-minded and community-minded town.

Q: Coffee or tea?

Tea!  Anyone who has watched our Rusty and Iris cam (the Owl Center’s Great Horned Owl breeding project) will know why tea is the answer.  If you’re a new viewer, you’ll need to ask a seasoned viewer about tea time….

Q: Have you read or seen Harry Potter? He has a pet owl. Thoughts?

Yes, I’ve read the first several Harry Potter books, until they got took dark for my tastes.  And I didn’t particularly want to read about Hedwig getting killed off.  These books have certainly contributed to the popularity of owls, but not in a realistic way.  In the United Kingdom it’s legal to own a pet owl, and lots of kids begged Mum and Dad for a pet Snowy Owl.  Many got them, only to realize they didn’t really want them and they don’t make good pets.  Sanctuaries have sprung up to deal with all of these unwanted owls.  Not a good thing.  In the US it’s not legal to have an owl for a pet, and the Owl Center website highlights why they do not make good pets.

Q: I heard Alice hits the sauce and eats a whole ice cream cake on her Hatch Day. Any truth to that? Does she get a special Hatch Day meal?

The people who come to the Festival get to eat Alice’s hatch-day cake.  Alice herself isn’t into sweets.  Her favorite food is pocket gophers (from local trappers), which she gets to eat the majority of the time.  So it’s nearly impossible to treat her to food in any way.

Q: This is obviously a big draw for kids and families. Disregard that I’m already super excited for the festival and consider that I’m 28 without any tiny humans under my roof. Why do I want to go? Sell me on it.

The live owl programs are the biggest draw for the festival, whether you’re 5 or 75, kids or no kids.  This year we’ll have eight different live species of owls throughout the Festival, including a Snowy Owl!  Aside from that you can go on an owl prowl to call in wild owls with an expert owl caller, bid on cool owl items in our live auction, eat owl face pancakes with real maple syrup, build an owl nest box to put up at your place, hear more about our plans for the International Owl Center, and hear owl experts from Finland and Israel talk about owls in their areas and around the world and the challenges they face.  It’s really a cultural experience.  And if you want to act like a big kid, you can get your face painted like an owl too.  It’s just plain FUN no matter how you slice it, whether you have kids or not, or whatever your level of interest in owls.

The festival runs from Friday, March 7th through Sunday, March 9th.  For more information check out our events page and their schedule.

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