By ANASTASIA PENCHI
Who needs to get out of the house to combat cabin fever in early March?
Who? You? Or is that hoot, hoot?
You don’t need to travel far if you want to get out to attend the International Festival of Owls, which is being held March 3-5, 2017, at the Houston Nature Center. It’s at 215 W. Plum St., in Houston, Minn., which is 22 miles southwest of La Crosse as you head over the Cass Street Bridge and follow Hwy. 16 west.
This is exactly the type of event that will appeal to children in need of something new and different to do. It is also good for kids (or even adults) who need to be reminded that wildlife is not meant to be kept as house pets.
In order to be prepared for all things owls, please keep the following in mind:
1. Why Houston? Go ask Alice.
Alice is the Great Horned Owl who inspired the festival. She fell out of her nest as an owlet in Antigo, Wis., about 20 years ago and isn’t able to live in the wild anymore. Through a “string of serendipitous events,” Alice ended up as an “education bird” at the Houston Nature Center with its director Karla Bloem. As the only live animal at this small center (Houston population is 979), Alice lives at Karla’s rural home and commutes there daily with her. This species is expected to live 30 years or more, so her work continues. In addition to the annual festival, Alice helped remove Great Horned Owls from Minnesota’s unprotected birds list, inspired the creation of the World Owl Hall of Fame, and is part of a vocal study on Great Horned Owls with Karla, which had never been done before.
2. It’s easy to give a hoot.
One of the fun events at this festival is the annual hooting contest for kids (since expanded to include adults). Who can best hoot, toot and whistle like an owl? Recommended research for preparation includes the calls of the Great horned Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Gray Owl and Long-eared Owl. Chips and screeches can be heard on several owl-focused Web sites. The bonus of this research is that it drives my cat nuts. He is stalking the speaker of my computer as he hears the owl calls. Little does he know this call would result in him being lunch – not the bird.
3. The palate of pellets.
Owls are not finicky eaters. When they eat tiny creatures, they eat all of the creature — fur, feather, bones – no matter if they can digest the parts or not. Hence, they provide us with the gift of owl pellets. Owls throw up these pellets of fur, feather and bones once or twice a day depending on the species. Attendants of this festival are able to become detectives of sorts and take apart these owl pellets to figure out what the owl had for dinner. Was it a bird? Was it a mouse? Or something else? Come dissect owl puke, and be glad it’s not your job to collect it.
4. Hear the call of the wild in the wild.
Interested in a nighttime trip to go hear owls call in the wild? Evening bus trips are ongoing at the nature center, as it sends out an expert owl caller with interested participants to hear local wild owls like the Barred and Eastern Screech-Owls. There are no guarantees as many weather events affect the owls’ response, and this is not something you should do on your own as it agitates them – they perceive it as an intruder in their territory. No two buses stop at the same spot, and nearly every spot is on or near remote private property (with permission), so these owls are unlikely to be bothered again. Apparently some public lands actually forbid active calling of owls to avoid stressing the birds.
5. Owls are best kept in places that are not your home.
Alice lives with Karla due to very unique circumstances, and you should be happy it’s illegal for you to have a native owl in your In addition to puking up pellets daily, owls need to empty their large intestines, and Karla describes this as “the consistency of chocolate pudding, but smells as bad as the nastiest thing you can imagine.” And that’s in addition to “regular poop.” And Karla has to deal with the critters at both ends as Alice needs her own freezer filled with frozen gophers, rats, rabbits and mice. Karla thaws food daily, removes organs, feeds Alice and then has to find any leftovers she hid from her meal before due to instinctual tendencies. I’m guessing Karla doesn’t host many dinner parties. And maybe limits games of Hide and Seek in her home.
To learn more about owl pellets and the damage owl talons can do to stuffed pillows, visit the Web site at www.festivalofowls.com or visit the Facebook Page at International Festival of Owls.