International Owl Center – Houston, MN

By Rick Pedersen –  

For those wishing to learn the Who’s who in the owl world, the answer is the International Owl Center located in Houston, MN.

Every year people from around the globe travel to this destination, which hosts the International Festival of Owls every March. My wife and I were fortunate enough to attend the 2020 event this year. Neither of us knew anything about owls and previously have seldom had interaction or sightings of them where we live. The only thing I remember about owls when I was very young, my grandpa told me that he had a hoot owl outside his window for several nights, and according to an Indian legend, it meant somebody was going to pass away. Whether anyone believes the story or not, my grandpa soon ended up moving to the afterlife when I was 11 years old.

For those with interest in owls wanting to learn more or just looking for a cool place to visit in a small town, then this is it. Houston is in southeast Minnesota and surrounded by hills dotted by farmland, marshes, and trout streams. The International Owl Center is the only owl education center in the United States. It began with Alice, the great horned owl, who fell out of her nest at three weeks old and permanently injured her wing. Karla Bloem of the Houston Nature Center uses the bird as an education bird, and the Festival of Owls began as a celebration to celebrate Alice. The festival soon grew to international proportions as attendance soared, and soon it launched its non-profit organization to educate the public about owls.

Using static and interactive displays, they can inspire and empower people as they learn about these fantastic feathered creatures.

Their mission is to make a better place for owls through education and research. These days younger owls have come on staff to do much of the work, and Alice is semi-retired. The center maintains regular hours for people to view the displays and live birds, and there is also a gift shop for those wishing for a souvenir of their trip. Check social media for more information on all of this.

The International Festival of Owls is a unique three-day event with much more to view than the usual activities at the center, and some off-site events at the local Houston high school. After seeing the on-site displays, my wife and I quickly grabbed a seat and sat through one of the many live programs offered at the center. We learned about the owl’s lifecycle from birth, and finally into adulthood. One thing I enjoy at events like this is watching the reactions of all the people who may have never seen a live owl in their entire life. Kids’ faces were filled with smiles while the adults sat in awe as the speaker went through her presentation with a live owl on her arm as she spoke. The programs were very informative and friendly while remaining informal in allowing for audience participation. We learned how to hoot like an owl, the difference between owl calls, and the meaning of those sounds. There was also a picture contest for grade school kids’ that drew in entries from more than 40 countries around the world. When I looked at some of the nations and the ages of the kids, I was amazed at the artistic talent I was viewing in the ages 9 through 13 groups. Some of the other events were outdoor owl prowls, kids face painting, hooting contests, and raffle drawings to help the event raise money. It is a non-profit and they rely on raising capital through entrance fees to the center and fundraisers.

It’s all very family-friendly, and many of the older adults looked at least as fascinated and interested as the children sitting beside them, if not even more so.

Speakers from around the world travel to this area to attend the event, and local raptor centers like the Illinois Raptor center joined the game with their presentations of live owls. I believe people from more than 100 different countries have traveled to this center, and it is well worth the trip because there is not another center like this one in the entire USA. Executive director Karla Bloem and staff deserve a lot of praise for their tireless efforts in maintaining this program so that people may travel from around the world to learn about these magnificent creatures. My wife and I walked away with new respect, and more excellent knowledge for these birds and what they represent in our ecosystem.

Finding an owl in the wild may be the result of being in the right place at the right time, but often more factors are involved such as patience, persistence, or just plain spending lengthy hours in a good location. A quiet, stealthy approach is required for what can make for an enjoyable time with family members out in the woods. Although owls are nocturnal animals, that does not mean they can only be seen at night, and dawn or dusk can be great times when these birds are more easily spotted and active. Also, you do not need to live in the woods to see owls as some suburban areas also have plenty of birds to view. They can also be attracted to birdbaths and nest boxes, with the latter being a great family project to involve the kids. All of this can be researched on the Internet, and there are also many excellent books available for a reference that may be carried with you as a field guide. I feel bird watching, in general, can be a fun activity to get out and enjoy the outdoors as it doesn’t require a ticket, nor does it need a building to be open. Take some time to enjoy the outdoors with loved ones.

Upon leaving the center, my wife and I stopped at the Free-Range Exchange in Hokah, Minnesota, for a fantastic lunch. This quaint, inviting cafe features daily fresh farm to table experience, and more. Coffee and espresso drinks showcase locally roasted beans in this full coffee shop. Local small farms and businesses provide ingredients for homemade creations. Baked items are a special homemade treat here for those looking for a quick muffin or scone to “gran and go”. Also, there are many nutrition and personal care items to include natural vitamins, mineral drinks, and plant-based supplements. Consuming real food is the path to health through diet, and this place does its best to provide customers with the locally best items. Thank you, Ben and staff, for this hidden gem tucked away in Hokah, Minnesota and I highly recommend it. Stop in for breakfast or lunch and tell them, Rick, from Driftless Area Magazine says hello and keep up the great job you’re doing.

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