JR the Eastern Screech owl.
Ruby the Great Horned Owl.
by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A stuffed toy sits unsuspectingly in an aviary. An American Barn owl sees her opening and rapidly pounces on the knickknack. This owl will only allow herself to be handled by one person, as she believes the individual is her mate.
Visitors to the International Owl Center in Houston can learn from this owl and several others. The center’s mission is to help people understand the ways in which humans impact owls, Executive Director and Founder Karla Bloem said. For instance, owls can ingest poison when they eat rodents that have ingested poison people use to remove them, Bloem said, so people can use alternative traps such as bucket traps to help owls.
The center opened at its current temporary location in March 2015. Prior to the center opening, Bloem used Alice, a Great Horned owl, in educational programs starting in 1998 for the Houston Nature Center, which she worked for the city to develop, she said. After festivals held beginning in 2003 to celebrate the day Alice hatched proved successful, and in light of the nearby National Eagle Center doing well, Bloem began preparing to open the center in Houston, taking classes and touring centers throughout the U.S. and England to do so.
The center is home to four ambassador owls.
Uhu is a seven-year-old Eurasian Eagle owl.
“She is one of the largest owl species in the world and is thankfully a gentle giant,” Bloem shared. “She sometimes flies at the end of programs at the Owl Center when we have smaller crowds.”
She was hatched in captivity in the U.S., and she is a non-native species of owl. She arrived at the center in 2015 after another facility at which she was working closed, Bloem said.
Ruby is a five-year-old Great Horned owl.
“She is our workhorse, doing most of our off-site programs,” Bloem stated. “She is snarky about stepping onto the glove, but once we are holding her, she is so relaxed she will sometimes tuck up a foot, preen or nibble her handler.”
Ruby was hatched at the center to contribute to its research regarding Great Horned owl vocalizations. The center has recordings of her dating back to her time in the egg, and it will keep recording her vocalizations for the rest of her life, Bloem explained.
Bloem said she appreciates learning about owls, particularly owl vocalization. She said she feels information in books about owls can be overgeneralized, and she aims to understand owls in all their variations rather than studying them as a single group.
Rusty and Iris, Ruby’s parents, are featured on a live video feed on the center’s website, Bloem noted.
Piper is a three-year-old American Barn owl.
“She is spunky, loves to pounce on her stuffed toys in her home aviary and won’t let anyone other than me handle her since she thinks I’m her mate,” Bloem said.
In the U.S., American Barn owls have withdrawn from the northern areas of their range, and in response, a reintroduction program began in New York, Bloem said. Piper’s parents and grandparents were non-releasable owls that were bred through the reintroduction program, Bloem added.
When releases of American Barn owls were no longer allowed, Piper was cared for so she could help the center educate people about owls as an education bird, Bloem stated. The center received her when she was seven weeks old.
JR is a one-year-old Eastern Screech owl.
He is “by far our smallest owl,” Bloem explained. “He likes to sing at home at night a lot and has a beautiful trill,” Bloem said. “He is scared of Uhu, since big owls eat little owls.”
JR is the first of his parents’ owlets to help teach people about owls as an education bird, Bloem said. His parents, who are non-releasable owls, serve at the Illinois Raptor Center as education birds.
“They thought they were both females so they were housed together, but one laid eggs that hatched,” Bloem said.
Bloem said visitors to the center get excited when they see the live ambassador owls.
“You can’t just wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to go see an owl today,’ because they’re just so good at not being seen,” Bloem shared.
The center also houses wings and tails that may be touched, mounted owls representing nine different species of owl, art related to owls that was created by children from around the world, cultural items from across the globe are related to owls, skulls and eggs.
The art comes from an owl art contest for children that the center holds in conjunction with its annual International Festival of Owls, which will be held March 6-8 this year and feature owl-related activities throughout Houston.
“Last year we received over 4,000 entries from 37 different countries … many of the children go to art schools or are seeking out international contests because they are so good,” Bloem noted.
The cultural items from around the world that are related to owls include wheat straw art from Nepal, owl decals from Germany and the Netherlands, carvings from Guatemala and Belize and a replica of an ancient wine vessel from China.
Near the center, 12 public owl sculptures soar above Houston, and Barista’s Coffee House is decked out with owls.
Bloem said programs at the center, which are presented at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day it is open, differ depending on audience members and their interests. General audiences learn about distinguishing owls based on their sounds, shapes, sizes and silhouettes, and a Build an Owl program for young children teaches them about owl adaptations, for instance.
“If we have a fun-loving audience, we have a game show,” Bloem stated. “For adults who are interested in a different angle, we have a program about owls in different cultures.”
Bloem said the center is working toward acquiring a permanent site, and donations are welcome to support the mission.
The center, which is located at 126 East Cedar Street in Houston, is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children from four to 17. Center members and children under three receive free admission.