By Janet Wight
If you are looking for a unique, family-friendly local festival, consider visiting Houston, MN. Each March, this charming hamlet hosts the International Owl Festival, a weekend gathering of more than 2,000 owl enthusiasts from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and other states in America.
The International Owl Center hosts this festival, relying on more than 100 community volunteers, a truly an impressive number given that Houston’s population is less than 1,000 people. Houston is just one hour’s drive beyond Rochester in the southeastern tip of Minnesota, nestled among scenic farms and rolling hills. Owl events are held throughout Houston at the Owl Center, Houston High School, the Houston Community Center, and a local church.
The festivities include options for all ages: live owl programs, an owl pancake breakfast, specialty vendors, owl artwork, an awards banquet, owl face painting, and much more, all focused on owls and the unique geological features found in this Minnesota region. Field trips include evening owl prowls, as well as a birding and natural history bus trip. Most participants attend for just one day, but others stay one or two nights in nearby Winona or La Crosse in order to participate in more of the scheduled activities. It might even be possible to spend the night at Loken’s Sawmill Inn, a small hotel conveniently located right in Houston, if it is reserved far in advance.
My husband Jeremy and I thoroughly enjoyed the programs we attended. We were captivated by the live-owl presentations (provided by the Illinois Raptor Center) which gave us the chance to see and learn about snowy, short-eared, barn, great horned, barred, and eastern screech owls. We also attended an informative talk about the history of the Houston Nature Center and its popular great horned owl named Alice.
Although recently officially retired, Alice participated in programs attended by over more than 75,000 participants in her impressive 20-plus year educational career. Another highlight was attending the awards banquet, where we listened to a talk by owl expert Dr. Paula Enriquez of Chiapas, Mexico, who was the recipient of the Champion of Owls award.
Owl Center Executive Director Karla Bloem is a knowledgeable, professional, and welcoming host who is involved in all aspects of the festival. Originally hired to direct the Houston Nature Center, Karla had the idea to celebrate Alice’s hatch day with a party in 2003. Nearly everyone was surprised when more than 300 people attended!
The International Owl Center, established in 2015, now runs the festival. Karla’s devotion to owls is evident in all aspects of this annual celebration which she oversees with infectious enthusiasm.
Seeing beautiful and regal owls up close, attending a variety of informative programs, and soaking in the small-town flavor of Houston makes the International Owl Festival an appealing winter gathering for owl enthusiasts of all ages.
Janet Wight is a resident of Como Park, where she lives with her husband and daughters.