International Owl Center contest explodes

Pictured is the winning piece in the 10-14 age group, which was created by Mariya Sa- dovskaia of Russia. This year, Houston’s International Owl Center art contest had 4,444 entries from 37 countries and 20 U.S. states, a signi cant increase from the 700 contest entries in 2018.
By : 
Chad Smith
Tri-County Record

Need proof that Houston’s International Owl Center does indeed receive attention around the globe? Consider the recently held children’s art contest.

 “We had 4,444 pieces come in from 37 countries and 20 U.S. states for this year’s contest,” said Karla Bloem, the center’s executive director. “The post office has a table set aside for our art entries and we were there picking some up every day for three months.”

Pretty impressive, especially when you consider that the contest began as a simple coloring competition only a few years ago. After the first couple of years, the center received more and more original art, and some of it was really good, according to Bloem.

And, Bloem added, a good percentage of the art was coming in from overseas. Soon the coloring contest was switched to an original art contest for kids ages 18 and under.

“The first couple of years, we would get between 200 and 400 original pieces,” Bloem recalled. “Last year, we had almost 700 entries from 27 different countries. We thought that was good, until this year.”

Big dreams in a small town

Why is a southeast Minnesota town of 1,000 people attracting that kind of attention? According to Bloem, Houston offers the only center dedicated to educating the public about owls. The beginning of the center starts all the way back to 1996.

“The weird thing about being the only owl education center in the country is we didn’t start out to be that,” said Bloem, who began working for the City of Houston to help develop a Nature Center to serve as the town’s trailhead for the Root River Trail.

“The whole thing started when the bike trail was coming to town and the city needed to develop something at the trailhead,” she recalled. “A nature center seemed like a good fit because there wasn’t one located on the trail. Plus, nature is a big reason people come to visit this area. I spent time talking to other nature centers about how to get one started. The one thing they said was to start doing some nature programming, even before the building is done.”

The seeds for the International Owl Center were firmly planted after that because Bloem, who loved birds of prey, decided to get a non-releasable bird and host programs for the public.

The center finds wings

Enter Alice, the Great Horned Owl, who had recently become available. Bloem started doing shows with Alice in 1998, long before the Nature Center was finished in 2001.  “She was already the star of the show, even before the building was finished,” Bloem said. “In addition to environmental education, the Nature Center was designed to promote tourism. I was looking for something to help promote tourism and came with the idea for a ‘Hatch Party for Alice’.

“She had hatched sometime in early March. There really isn’t a lot going on then. We brought in other live owls, did some fun family things, and we thought it would be just a local event. However, the first year, we had 300 people show up. We called it the Owl Festival, we had merchandise for sale, children’s art, story time, and a lot of family-friendly events.”

Just a few years later, the Owl Festival’s popularity had people flying in from other parts of the country, coming from as far away as Alabama, California, and New York. “That’s when we realized nobody else in the country was doing something like this,” Bloem said.

From that point on, Bloem and everyone else involved in the center “took the idea and ran with it.” They added a World Owl Hall of Fame, taking nominations for people doing things to make the world better for owls. The center brings in experts to judge who gets into the Hall of Fame, and the center presents the awards. Most of the winners fly into Minnesota and speak at the center.

“That means we have owl experts regularly coming in from all over the world,” Bloem said. “Who would have even thought this was possible? When we started getting 1,000 people showing up for the festival, we then took a look around to see what wildlife education was out there. We found a wolf center, a bear center, an eagle center, and a crane center. We didn’t find an owl education center anywhere in the U.S.”

Bloem said that recognition hatched the idea for the year-round International Owl Center. It took a lot of planning, but the center officially opened in 2015 as a second non-profit entity next to the Nature Center.

An endless attraction

So, what is it about owls that bring people in from all over the country? “They’re a little mysterious,” Bloem said. “You don’t get up in the morning and say ‘I’m gonna go see some owls today.’ You rarely see them and mostly hear them out in the trees. When you do see them, it’s usually just their silhouettes, so they’re very elusive.”

 And the appeal of owls was clearly evident in this year’s art contest and the incredible volume of submissions. “With that number of entries, we decided the smart thing is to have other people do the judging for us,” Bloem laughed. “We have three retired art professors come in to help us, and this year they’ve been joined by a couple of high school teachers as well.”

It took many days of effort to narrow down the top choices to approximately 600 of the best pieces. After that, the judges came in to do their work. “The judges really do speak a different language than the rest of us do,” Bloem added.

For a look at some of the winning entries, and to learn more about these fascinating birds, check out the International Owl Center’s Facebook page at