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What a hoot: International Owl Center in Minnesota is a real eye-opener

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A few minutes after stepping into a modest building in downtown Houston, Minn., both of us experienced an odd feeling.

We were being watched.

Large eyes peered at us from throughout the room. Some were coal black, while others were bright yellow.

Some eyes stared from big photos. Others were real and attached to living owls. As we walked around enjoying exhibits, a great horned owl, Eurasian eagle owl and barn owl curiously watched.

We were at the International Owl Center, a relatively new nonprofit organization in the town of Houston in southeastern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive north of Decorah and near La Crosse, Wis., and Winona, Minn. Anyone who loves owls will enjoy a visit, and it’s close enough for a long day trip from the Corridor. Better yet is a weekend enjoying the rugged terrain of that Mississippi River region with a stop at the owl center.

During our visit we were immersed in owl lore. Few animals are as fascinating and nearly everyone is intrigued by them. The image of an owl, especially a great horned owl, communicates wisdom. Owls are tremendously photogenic and appealing. For that reason, many companies use graphics or photos of owls in their logos and for marketing, including Acumen Benefit Advisers in Cedar Rapids and America’s Best Eyewear, which has an office in the Corridor.

The International Owl Center is a place to marvel at these amazing animals. Their senses of vision and hearing are among the best in the animal kingdom and enable them to survive in a harsh world. For example, barred owls, common in the Corridor, are able to pinpoint a tiny mouse in darkness that seems complete to humans.

Flying silently from a lofty perch, they close talons at just the right instant to snatch the hapless creature. Without owls our world would be mousier and certainly less interesting.

We learned that about 250 species of owls inhabit our planet. Some are in decline, often because of habitat destruction. Other perils include electrocution from overhead wires, colliding with vehicles, and eating animals that have been poisoned as pests. The International Owl Center helps make our world more secure for these birds and asks people to help them.

The founding of almost any nonprofit organization traces back to a person or a few people with strong motivation to do some social or environmental good. The owl center is no exception.

Karla Bloem, director of the International Owl Center, had a life-changing experience years ago.

“I was interested in hawks and was looking for one to use.

When I worked at what became the Houston Nature Center, I heard about a 1 1/2-year-old, permanently injured great horned owl named Alice that a wildlife rehabilitator needed to find a home for. Alice sparked my fascination with owls. We began a partnership that has endured for almost 19 of her 20 years.

Alice became a star attraction at the Nature Center. Many visitors met Alice and became enchanted with owls. I wanted to combine education and tourism and cooked up the idea of a “hatch day party” for Alice in early March. We called it the Festival of Owls and were astonished when over 300 people came the first year,” she said.

Soon, owl enthusiasts and experts from around the world began trekking to tiny Houston to share knowledge. That led to the creation of the World Owl Hall of Fame to recognize people who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place for these birds. Winners attend the International Festival of Owls to receive their award. This activity and interest led to the creation of the International Owl Center.

Many people already were visiting nearby Wabasha, Minn., to visit the National Eagle Center.

By creating the owl center in Houston, raptor enthusiasts can enjoy both places and both types of birds in one trip.

International flavor

Located in a former store in downtown Houston, the owl center truly is international. Americans are familiar with great horned owls, which range across our continent, as well as many other species. Less familiar are the many species that live in Africa, Asia and Europe. Some are at grave risk of extinction, and the owl center draws attention to their plight through education and sharing of knowledge.

Houston is nestled in a rugged region that’s known as the Driftless Area, where Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin converge. For reasons not clearly understood, the region was bypassed by several of the more recent glaciers, giving rivers and streams thousands of years to carve deep valleys. Much of the land is too steep for cultivation and remains heavily wooded. Springs abound that feed cool water streams where trout lurk.

The Root River Trail is a 60-mile paved bikeway meandering along the Root River beneath 300-foot bluffs and through dense forests while connecting several small Minnesota towns.

Businesses embrace owls

One stretch is between Fountain on the west and Houston on the east. A spur extends south to Harmony. Most towns along the trail feature interesting eateries and lodging. A favorite is Through the Grapevine, a German restaurant in Houston. Owner Rosie witnessed the horrors of World War II in her native country. Eventually marrying an American serviceman, she settled in southeastern Minnesota and makes her dishes from scratch. It’s open only Fridays and Saturdays and is worth a stop. Carlson Roasting Co.’s tasting room features its own roasted coffees. One is called Uhu Brew, named for a Eurasian eagle owl at the nearby owl center. Another is the Electric Owl Espresso.

Houston area businesses have embraced owls. Loken’s Sawmill Inn and Suites features owl decor and many town visitors enjoy the Parade of Owls Art Tour. Pedestrians encounter 10 public owl sculptures in parks and photos and owl art seem everywhere around town. The International Owl Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Visitors are likely to meet Executive Director Karla Bloem and possibly Alice, a 20-year-old great horned owl.

This year’s Festival of Owls will be held March 3-5. Many owl-related events are scheduled for the festival. Check the center’s website for details.

After enjoying owl lore, you could drive 30 minutes north to Winona to visit the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which exhibits water-inspired paintings by artists such as Monet, Picasso, Renoir and Matisse.

The National Eagle Center has live eagles and considerable eagle information. It’s in Wabasha, about an hour north of Houston.

Become a member at any one of these three and centers admission is half price at the other two.

FOUR WAYS TO HELP WILD OWLS

— Leave some standing dead tree that are away from buildings. These trees are important nesting and perching places.

— Use traps instead of poison to kill mice and other pests. Owls can receive a toxic dose when they eat animals that have ingested poison.

— Keep cats indoors.

— Set mower higher and mow less. Taller grass provides habitat for owl prey.

LEARN MORE

Meet Owl Center Executive Director Karla Bloem and an owl when she makes a presentation at the Indian Creek Nature Center

— What: The Internation Owl Center comes to Indian Creek Nature Center

— When: 5:30 p.m. Jan. 18

—Where: Indian Creek Nature Center, 5300 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids

— Details: www.indiancreeknaturecenter.org

IF YOU GO

Learn more about wildlife at these Minnesota centers:

— International Owl Center: 126 E. Cedar St., Houston, Minn., Internationalowlcenter.org; (507) 896-6957

— Minnesota Marine Art Museum: 800 Riverview Dr., Winona, Minn.; Mmam.org; (866) 940-6626

— National Eagle Center: 50 Pembroke Ave., Wabasha. Minn.; Nationaleaglecenter.org; (651) 565-4989.

— For general area information: explorelacrosse.com

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