HOUSTON, Minnesota (WXOW) - Alice the owl isn't the only bird turning heads in Houston County anymore. Between March 15th and March 21st three owls hatched in Houston, MN.
And until the owlets leave the nest, you can stream live video of them. But you can't see them in person.
"People think I get to see them," said Karla Bloem, Director and Naturalist at the Houston Nature Center and Executive Director of the International Owl Center. "I don't. I see them the same as everybody else on the monitors."
These owlets are part of the International Owl Center's captive breeding project; a project that focuses on the vocalizations of Great Horned Owls.
"I started studying Great Horned Owl vocalizations because oddly enough, nobody's ever done it. Which is very strange because they're very common, all over North America, they're in Central and South America," said Bloem. "But nobody had ever studied them. And probably because they were common nobody studied them. There's not much funding for common species."
Bloem is no stranger to owls. She is the licensed handler of Alice the owl, a Great Horned Owl that works at the Houston Nature Center as an education bird. Alice ended up at the Houston Nature Center after being injured as a baby. Alice lives with Bloem and believes she is her mate.
"I started recording and studying Alice, the wild owls that come into the yard here, other wild owls at nests and otherwise," said Bloem. "And I kind of realized if I was going to document the complete vocal repertoire of the species, I had to breed a captive pair."
Bloem says that owls like Alice that have been raised around humans vocalize differently than those in the wild. To get accurate data, owls in this project need to be removed from humans.
"So, it's just very minimal human interaction because I want them to be behaving normally," said Bloem. "I don't want them to be habituated to me or afraid of me and exhibiting different behavior because I'm out there trying to observe them."
The owlet's parents, Rusty and Iris, are also not adapted to humans. They entered the breeding project as injured adults that could no longer live in the wild.
"They have the natural fear of humans," said Bloem. "Which is how I want it to be and that's how the young are reared also."
Although the owlets are less than two months old there have already been some interesting discoveries.
"One of the really fun, cool, interesting things that's come out of this, it wasn't even me who noticed this, it was one of the cam viewers," said Bloem. "And somebody noticed one day when the wild owls were in the yard and they were hooting like crazy, and Rusty and Iris were flying around like crazy. Here's the little pile of owlets, in the nest bowl, and they were just over two weeks old. And they started doing their little squeaky sounds in the perfect adult rhythm of a hoot! Oh my gosh! At just over two weeks old! Nobody had any idea they were capable of that!"
Bloem said that this kind of public interaction is part of the reason for the live stream.
"It was broadcast on the internet for two reasons," said Bloem. "One so people can see them and appreciate them, but two, so that people can help me with observations."
The owlets names are Pandora, Patrick, and Patience. These names were selected from a naming contest and reflect their unique personalities.
The only interaction Pandora, Patrick, and Patience have had with humans is when they were banded. The bands, which are attached to the leg, indicate that they were bred in captivity and are required by federal permit.
Right now, the owlets are starting to fly and over the summer they will begin "live pray training."
"They don't need Rusty and Iris to teach them how to hunt," said Bloem. "They've got those as natural instincts. They just have to be motivated to practice. And it takes practice to get good at it."
This upcoming fall the owlets are scheduled to be released into the wild.
"Once they are released into the wild their life all of a sudden is very different. And they're much more vulnerable," said Bloem. "Because here they're safe, secure, and get enough to eat, mom and dad are there, the wild owls can't get at them. But once they're out, the wild owls could attack them if they perceive them as a threat or run them out."
And for Pandora, Patrick, and Patience, this could be the difference between life and death.
"You wouldn't expect 100% survival the first year. You'd expect 50%," said Bloem. "So, you know, somebody's going to die most likely. Which isn't a fun thought but that's how it goes."
Bloem has been charting the course of this project based on data from other owl breeding projects around the world and what is known about Great Horned Owls. But since this project is treading in uncharted waters, Bloem said they aren't always sure what will happen next.
"It's just kind of learning as we go," said Bloem. "So a lot of this stuff is not set in stone. It's ‘okay, this is the plan and we'll see how it goes.'"
The International Owl Center breeding project is being funded by donations and the thousand square foot aviary that the owls live in was built by volunteers.
For more information on the International Owl Center and to view the live web stream of Iris, Rusty, and their owlets, you can visit www.InternationalOwlCenter.org/
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