Owls have meant a lot of different things to the sentient apes which ascribe meaning to things. In Ancient Greece the bird accompanied Pallas Athena and symbolized wisdom. As the old gods fell into disfavor, the owl took on a ghoulish role as a witch’s familiar. In Japan the owl symbolizes luck. In Laos, to hear an owl’s hoot is to receive certain indication that someone dear to you is in for a bad time.
If you could ask an owl what it stands for, it might tell you three things: going out at night, eating lots of vermin, and finding an owl of the opposite gender with whom they can make new owls. It’s the going out at night bit that has made the owl so mysterious and subject to interpretation, and it’s also why you’ll need some help if you’re ever to see them up close. To understand and appreciate owls, you go to the International Owl Center.
In 1996 the City of Houston, Minnesota decided to create a nature center to serve as their trailhead for the Root River Trail. They selected Karla Bloem, a biologist and falconer, to build up their nature center, who in turn sought out a proper bird to serve as the program’s resident educational creature. Karla discovered that a great horned owlet had just recently made herself available for the role by plummeting out of a pine tree.
If Alice wasn’t good at staying in a nest, she at the very least proved a remarkable ambassador to her kind. Hundreds and soon thousands of people began pouring into Houston to admire her. Having recognized their city’s rapidly growing significance for Alice and her ilk, Karla and her co-conspirators conceived their own owl program.
Alice was featured on television, radio, and even provided the hoots for a video game before retiring from the limelight in 2018. She graciously left a whole parliament of other owls to charm Houston’s visitors in her stead.
“Piper is our barn owl,” said Karla, executive director of the International Owl Center, “and she’s quite the pistol. She’s a human imprint and believes I’m her mate, so she loves to be around
- She’s very talkative and treats me to intense screeching during barn owl mating season. Unfortunately for her I’m not a male barn owl, so I can’t really reciprocate. Piper is less fond of other humans, though. If any of the other staff members approach her when I’m not around, she’ll respond by trying to rip their faces off.
“Uhu the Eurasian eagle-owl is Piper’s exact opposite. She’s a gentle giant with a six-foot wingspan, and while she’s not exactly fond of being handled either she’s much more of a lady about it. I don’t think she’s ever clawed or bitten anyone. Like I said: a lady. Uhu gives our audiences a great show by flying around over their heads. She doesn’t even need food motivation to do that. She just knows the routine.
“Rusty and Iris are two of our resident great horned owls. If Rusty were a human, women would stand in line to marry him. He’s so attentive to Iris, always bringing her food, and during mating season he gives her what we call the ‘Barry White call’: Hoo hohohohohoho, hooo hoo! Iris, on the other hand … well, she’s not the kindest mate, to put it politely. I believe she’s proof that female great horned owls are the origin of the word ‘owly.’ But no female owl could resist Rusty’s Barry White call, not even Iris.”
The people of Houston love that their city has become the de facto owl capitol of the world. Go there and you will see owl banners hung across the streets, and owl sculptures perched next to the sidewalks. Several of Houston’s businesses double as shrines to owldom. But the International Owl Center is serving the owls’ interests as well as it is Houston’s.
“We’re delighted that people love our owls, but their cuteness isn’t the whole point of what we’re doing here,” said Karla. “We want to empower people to make the world a better place for owls. People are owls’ biggest problem, actually, but only by accident. We teach people how to live an owl-friendly life, making decisions like not cutting down the dead trees where owls nest or poisoning the rodents that owls eat.”
To learn more about the International Owl Center’s mission, plan your trip to the annual International Festival of Owls, donate money to the center so they can afford a constant supply of truly unfortunate rodents, and browse what is perhaps the internet’s richest source of owl-themed merchandise, you need only visit internationalowlcenter.org.
By David Scheller