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Perfect time for an owl festival

Article Date: 2005-02-28   Source:   Comments: 0

By Betsy Bloom

Houston, Minnesota, U.S.A. - The timing is just coincidence, Karla Kinstler says. A fine coincidence for her Festival of Owls, but she won't take credit for any special powers of foresight.

It was almost a year ago that she asked James Duncan, one of North America's top experts on great gray owls, to come down from Manitoba, Canada, for the 2005 festival, which starts Friday in Houston.

Kinstler had no inkling at the time that the birds Duncan knows best would pick the same year to visit Minnesota as well. By the thousands.

Northern Minnesota is in the midst of a perhaps unprecedented invasion of owls that normally are rare south of the Canadian border. Birders, many of whom have never seen a live great gray owl, have been coming back from areas such as the Sax-Zim bog northwest of Duluth, Minn., with blissful tales of counting dozens in a day.

"There's no question, what we're experiencing is an invasion of a magnitude that people might experience only once in a lifetime," said Duncan, who is a manager of biodiversity conservation for the provincial government of Manitoba.

And while a great gray owl has yet to be reported in Houston County, others have drifted down into Iowa and shown up on utility poles in southern Wisconsin, raising hopes that - just maybe - the bird sometimes referred to as the "ghost" or "phantom of the north" might put in an appearance here.

If nothing else, this irruption has raised interest in owls just in time for the festival, which will open with a banquet Friday at which Duncan will be keynote speaker.

He still finds great grays fascinating, even after two decades of studying the normally secretive bird.
"If I were to see one now, it would be like seeing it the first time. The sense of awe is the same," Duncan said in a telephone interview from Winnipeg.

He is not surprised this year's owl invasion has drawn national media attention. When the ash-colored bird does reveal itself, it's an impressive sight - with a wingspan of 5 feet, it's the largest owl size-wise in North America.

"This bird has a way of capturing people's imaginations that would never even think of picking up binoculars and going birdwatching," Duncan said.

The north might be inundated with great grays and northern hawk owls, but for Kinstler this has been a winter of screech owls.

Kinstler, who also is naturalist at the Houston Nature Center, is the local contact for owls found in need of emergency care, which she then transports to a raptor rehabilitator. This winter, she's received screech owls that were sick, broken, torn up, deceased - and in need of a good bath.

That one was found in December on a farm, up to its neck in a manure pool. Another was picked up by a motorist in January who saw it trying to skitter across a road, dragging a wing. The first survived; the second did not, she said.

At her home in rural Houston this winter, the classic hoot of the great horned owls has been interspersed with the more lively trill of the screech owls. Kinstler wonders at the daring of the toy-like birds, considering they could very well become a meal for the larger great horned owls.

She's hoping they, too, will turn up during the "owl prowl" field trips planned for Saturday evening. Other activities planned include storytelling, an owl-calling workshop, a nest-box building class and an edible owl art contest.

The woman who rehabilitated Alice, the nature center's resident great horned owl - the festival is timed to celebrate Alice's "hatch day" - again will bring about six species of live owls people can view up close.

Last year, the festival drew about 600 people, including almost 100 for the banquet. This year, they're expecting a thousand visitors.

"I think a lot of people just have a natural love of owls," Kinstler said. "I think it's the faces. Owls are so expressive in their faces, it's not like you're looking at a blank stare. They've got a huge range of facial expressions."

Betsy Bloom can be reached at (608) 791-8236 or

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from and placed here for comment. is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

Related Articles:
2010-03-10 - Will Houston build an owl center? by Craig Moorhead - Houston, Minnesota, U.S.A.
2009-02-15 - British Owl Flies Into World Owl Hall of Fame by Karla Kinstler - Houston, Minnesota, U.S.A.
2005-07-15 - Feelin' owlish? Owners prize Alice but say owls don't make good pets by Chanel Banks - Houston, Minnesota, U.S.A.
2004-11-29 - Environmental notes: The owls are coming by Betsy Bloom - Minnesota, U.S.A.

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