The International Festival of Owls

Giving a Hoot in Houston, Minnesota

Great Horned Owl.
Great Horned Owl

photos by lilly ball

Owls are mystical creatures. Many cultures, including the Kikuyu of Kenya, the Aztecs of Mesoamerica, and some Native American tribes, believed owls to be harbingers of death. Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder (who cited owl eggs as a hangover cure), in his encyclopaedic Natural History, wrote, “The horned owl is especially funereal, and is greatly abhorred in all auspices of a public nature…the monster of the night, its voice is heard, not with any tuneful note, but emitting a sort of shriek.” Similarly, in John Keats’ epic poem Hyperion, he mentions the “gloom-bird’s hated screech.” In Ancient Greece, however, the owl was noted as a symbol of wisdom. In modern Japan, they’re good luck. The Italian idiom “Can’t stop being the owl,” means you can’t stop flirting.

And in Minnesota, the International Festival of Owls is held every March in Houston (pop: 978), a pastoral farming community in the heart of bluff country, along the Root River in the Driftless Area. It’s a neat little town, marked by church steeples and barn silos. In March, it looks distinctly heartland, like a Joseph Pickett folk painting—furrowed hills, squat architecture, leafless trees. The Festival itself started as a “hatch-day” party for Alice the Great Horned Owl, a permanently injured, human-imprinted owl. Alice arrived at the Houston Nature Center in 1998, to “work” (by letting visitors learn from her). Soon, her “hatch-day” expanded into an event celebrating owls and teaching people about conservation “while bringing the scientific people and the general public together,” says Karla Bloem, center director at the time. By 2008, more than 1,000 visitors were showing up for the celebration, and Bloem was considering opening a center specifically for owls—which she did, as the International Owl Center, in 2015. Now the event draws thousands, including from far-away places such as Kenya, Japan, Israel, and Italy. Houston, it turns out, isn’t such a strange place for this institution: 12 of 19 North American owl species live in Minnesota, many in Houston County. Plus, no one else has claimed the title. (And as for Alice, she’s now “semi-retired.”)

To see what all the fuss is, I roll into this unassuming town after grabbing a football-size burrito at Cha Chis in Winona (which, although delicious, sits in my gut like a half-digested owl pellet). I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with owls. During the entire construction of my family’s home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, when I was about 3 years old, a snowy owl sat perched upon the south-facing roof peak like an alabaster omen. At night, a flinty-eyed barred owl would hang out in the apple tree beside my window, repeating its bone-chilling mantra: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Since then, I’ve regarded owls with an air of foreboding. But I’m here to report, to face my yellow-eyed demons. My first stop is the International Owl Center, located in the old Houston Mercantile building. (A few months earlier, in October, they celebrated Owl-O-Ween and a night-time run through the country—participants dressed as owls—called the Moonlight Hoot Scoot). There, I pick up my press badge. The Owl Center is a fantastic resource for all things owl: live owls, taxidermied owls, wing displays, feet displays, a map telling visitors how to say “owl” in different languages (e.g., “ugle” in Norwegian, “bundi” in Swahili, and “burung hantu” in Indonesian), and a variety of owl-themed local and fair trade goods.

The International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota.
The International Owl Center in Houston is the only all-owl education center in the United States. It puts on owl-themed events throughout the year, including excursions into known owl territories in and around the 978-person town.

But the main stage, as it were, is in the gymnasium of Houston High School a few blocks away. The gym is packed. Last year, the festival attracted roughly 2,400 owl enthusiasts of all stripes: kids, farmers, sweater-wearing academics. I see children and adults smiling through owl face paint. Heads adorned with clip-on owl feathers (or plumicorns, which is owl slang for the asymmetrical ear tufts found on the heads of some species). After most spectators have settled into the bleachers or the 19 rows of collapsible chairs, Hooston the Owl, an owl mascot, emerges from a side door. The echoic din climbs to a brouhaha. Hooston dances and poses, tennis shoes peeking from under his plush talons. Kids swarm in for contact; a little girl tries to get a high five but is left hanging. People are standing up, applauding, hooting. There’s something to be said about seeing a grown man hug a giant plush owl. And then the house lights dim.

I start to wonder: What is this collective fascination with owls?

“Which section can hoot the loudest?” one of the Illinois Raptor Center’s Owl Ambassadors calls out. This spurs a collective hooting loud enough to rattle the rafters.

The International Owl Festival teaches visitors about owls’ unique evolutionary adaptations while dispelling the sometimes harmful myths that folklore from around the globe has associated with these nocturnal raptors.

One of the gloved handlers parades around an 18-year-old barred owl like a cocktail waitress with a tray. The bird is big and mottled, its plumage the exact tawny browns and ashen grays of the hills surrounding this gymnasium, its expression equal parts menacing and blasé. A screen at the front of the gym tells us that, phonetically, the barred owl’s call sounds like, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? I feel a chill flutter up my spine.

The great horned owl is carried around, and it seems to regard the crowd (very closely), with icy yellow eyes, the way an apex predator might watch a watering hole. “They will basically eat anything,” the announcer warns.

Its call sounds, appropriately, like, Who’s awake? Me too.

The most common reaction from the audience when a bird is on display is Awww… But owls are not cute; they’re majestic, authoritative, ancient, eerie, intimidating.

I consider that the festival almost triples the population of Houston in a single weekend. “At first,” Karla Bloem tells me, “the festival wasn’t overly well-received.” Many residents, living in such a small town, bristled at the idea of tax money going toward their own nature center, let alone owl-related event. “But as it grew, and more and more people came—especially from foreign countries—people in town realized that it was economically very good for Houston. The restaurants are really busy, the hotel is booked way in advance, hotels in neighboring towns and cities all get many fest-goers, and it’s an excellent fundraiser for the International Owl Center. These days the vast majority of Houston residents are proud of our international festival, and a large number of them volunteer to help.”

Later, at JT’s Corner Bar & Grill, a taxidermy-heavy haunt directly across from the Owl Center, I get a chance to sit down and talk with Jacques Nuzzo, a program director and master falconer at the Illinois Raptor Center, who was brought in by festival organizers tasked with finding “presenters who really know their owl stuff.”

Nuzzo led the spirited owl presentation back in the gymnasium. I ask about people’s fascination with owls.

“Well, they’re not easy to find,” he says. “It’s not something that you just wake up in the morning and go, ‘I’m gonna go find myself a snowy owl.’ It just doesn’t happen. Their secretive and mainly nocturnal behavior prohibits us from getting many glimpses of them. So, when you have one up close and personal, where it’s just sitting there and people see it, people love that. They just go nuts for it. You don’t see that with hawks. You don’t see that with falcons. You don’t see that with eagles.

“And owls have a softer face,” he adds. “You look at the face of a barred owl, it’s almost human-like. It has dark eyes, it has an expression. You look at the face of a peregrine falcon or a golden eagle, it’s like you’re looking at the Terminator. You don’t get that from owls. There’s this softness to them. And they are literally soft birds. What people don’t understand is that they do look great, but they’re not sweet creatures. I mean, they are predatory birds. They kill stuff, they cause damage. But there’s something very attractive about them. You wanna get up there and you just wanna hug one and squeeze one.”

“It’s funny you mention that,” I say. “Because when an owl looks at me, it gives me the impression that it’s looking at food, and it’s trying to figure out how to eat me.”

I head out of town, past the Root River Market Co-Op and Cox True Value Hardware, taking Highway 76 north for Winona. It’s cold. The sky is the color of galvanized metal, the dark and swollen hills below are brushed with snow and bristly with black trees. I see dark shapes in those trees—squirrel nests, perhaps, or the odd hawk or crow. Or maybe it’s an owl up there, perched at sundown, watching my passing car, unblinking, informed by an ancient knowledge. And maybe, after all I’ve learned about owls, this one sees in me a certain kinship, a friendly bond, an interspecies ally. Or maybe it’s just sizing me up.  

Eat, Play, Stay in Houston

JT’s Corner Bar and Grill

The small-town dive bar you’re expecting: Bloody Marys, occasional local bands, and dinner specials—including barbecue chicken and ribs.

Barista’ Coffee House

This quaint, coffee-making mainstay serves breakfast and lunch paninis and smoothies made with local honey—with a fish pond and “secret garden” on an outdoor patio.

Outback Ranch

West of Houston, horse and hiking trails yawn through the scenic Yucatan Valley, where you can lodge in cabins, tents, or RVs, with horse riding tours available.

Loken’s Sawmill Inn & Suites

Jacuzzi suites, free wi-fi, and coffeemakers for early-morning bikers, who hit the Root River State Trail just outside the back door, threading through southeast Minnesota towns.

Houston Nature Center

This trailhead for the Root River State Trail features a community garden, a “natural” playground (rocks and wood, no plastic), and nine campsites, each with a fire ring at just $20 a night.

Digital Extra: A Who’s Who

Marvel at the stars of the International Owl Festival in Houston—in all their fluffy, feathery glory.