On the opening night of Houston’s International Festival of Owls (IFO), four owls brought by Iowa’s Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR) were introduced like Russian stacking dolls, starting with Zen, the tiny saw-whet owl, and ending with Moonface, the snowy owl with stark white wings that created a gust whenever he flapped them.
Photo by Amelia
Kay Neumann of Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR) gets windblown from the wing flap from Moonface, a male snowy owl rescued through SOAR.
“I’m not good at naming,” Kay Neumann of SOAR admitted with a laugh as she took out each bird of prey to the camera phone-ready crowd.
Along with Zen and Moonface, Neumann also brought a screech owl and a short-eared owl, both of which are currently unnamed, and talked about each bird’s traits and habitats to the wide-eyed crowd of both adults and children.
The SOAR live owl presentation was just one of the many owl events in Houston for the IFO weekend, with almost every major building in town used for various owl events.
“This is the only full-weekend, all-owl festival in North America,” Karla Bloem, director of the Houston Nature Center, explained of the festival’s draw.
In addition to a day-long owl-themed event in Florida, Bloem said that the only other owl festivals she knows of are in Italy and a remote village in Nepal.
“There is an Italian owl festival every two years, but it’s more focused on art,” she explained. “We have a sister festival in Nepal, and it’s held the same weekend as ours, but its main purpose is to change cultural perceptions of owls, because the kids in rural areas take slingshots and try to hit owls.”
Houston’s IFO provided a well-rounded owl experience that included everything from an owl calling contest to an owl hall of fame presentation, making it a top destination for anyone with an interest in the nocturnal birds.
“I come because I have a passion for owls and so does everyone else here,” said Laurel Bahe, an artist who made the trip to Houston all the way from her home in Colorado Springs. “This is my third year being here.”
Bahe, who specializes in owl paintings among other “critter art,” brought along bright owl-themed canvases and postcards, as well as little sewn owl dolls that seemed to catch the eye of every small child in the proximity of her table.
“It’s just a great event for people who love owls,” Bahe said with a smile.
The owl who started it all
The IFO began as a “hatch-day” (birthday) party for Alice, a great horned owl who was discovered when she fell out of her nest at three weeks old.
“We had no idea it would become this big,” Bloem said. “We had a hatch-day party for Alice in March and a lot of people came. Now we have people flying in from all over the country. It just kind of took on a life of its own.”
The event, which marked its 12th year last weekend, is now Houston’s biggest fundraiser of the year. According to Bloem, the IFO benefits not only the Houston Nature Center, but also helps bring in revenue to local businesses and organizations.
“This time of year there is nothing else going on, so the businesses and organizations really appreciate the economics [of the IFO],” Bloem explained. “It’s really economically benefitting lodging, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations — even the Boy Scouts and local churches.”
The IFO has created somewhat of a unique bond between Houston and its owls, one that benefits both the community and the birds. For Bloem and Houston’s residents, the festival is always an economic and personal success.
“We really take pride in it,” Bloem said.