“Owl” About Alice

Where else but Minnesota can you go to a retirement party for an owl?

Alice, the great horned owl who started it all at the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota. Celebrate her retirement in November 2018. Courtesy Karla Bloem.
Photo courtesy Karla Bloem

Throwing a retirement party for an educational owl is already about the cutest thing in the world, but as world-renowned vocalizations expert and International Owl Center executive director Karla Bloem puts it, Alice the great horned owl isn’t just an owl: ”She’s an institution.”

Even if you haven’t heard of Alice, you’re invited to learn about her at her retirement party on Nov. 3 at the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota. It’s a full day of bird education and owl celebration, complete with door prizes, owl-themed refreshments, and saying goodbye to Alice. (Before you go, check out a preview of the town’s owl love as well as where to eat, play, and stay during your visit.)

At 21 years old, Alice is ready to retire from a career of owl education where she met tens of thousands of people, had a big break where she recorded her hoots for a NatGeo TV Xbox Kinect game, galvanized some of the first research on great horned owl vocalizations, and testified before the Minnesota House and Senate Environment Committees to help put the great horned owl on the protected species list in 2005. “Humans are owls’ greatest problem but also its greatest hope,” Bloem says, and in the mind of this writer, Alice has done more of a lifetime’s share of work to help raise awareness about owls. 

Alice is literally the reason the International Owl Center and the International Owl Festival (originally called her “hatching day” birthday celebration) exist in Houston—a town of less than a thousand people. And, because the International Owl Center and festival exist, they were able to inspire countries like India and Nepal to have owl festivals as well. Alice’s long list of adventures continue, but you’ll just have to attend the special program at the International Owl Center at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to hear it all.

“She won’t be attending the retirement party because she doesn’t like to be handled,” Bloem says, referencing the arthritis that caused her retirement, “so we’ll put the live video feed in her aviary. It has two-way audio, so people can actually say goodbye to her and she can hear them. She’ll probably look up at the camera and be like, ‘What the heck?’ and probably hoot back,” Bloem laughs. The aviary, which is actually inside Bloem’s home, is where Alice has lived for almost 19 years, and considering her spunk, many more to come. 

Alice was born in the spring of 1997 in Antigo, Wisconsin, but a tumble out of her tall nest meant that she would never be able to fly in the wild, even though the Raptor Education Group Inc. rehabilitated her wrist and elbow as much as they could.

At the same time, the city of Houston was trying to working on developing a river bike trail to the town with a nature center as its trailhead to help drive tourism to the area. Bloem got involved, and when other nature centers advised her not to wait for a building to create nature programming, she dove right in. Although Bloem’s interest was birds of prey, it was Alice who was available at the time, and through that serendipitous connection, a relationship of more than two decades began.

“She’s so used to being around people, she actually imprinted. She thinks she’s one of us,” Bloem says. “She’s got attitude, and she knows she’s the queen in charge. She has no self-confidence issues whatsoever!”

While you will not be able to see Alice at the International Owl Center (which split from the nature center in 2015) anymore, you can visit Ruby, another great horned owl; Uhu, the Eurasian Eagle Owl; Piper, an American Barn Owl; and JR, the Eastern Screech-Owl and the center’s newest resident.