Luther Alumni Magazine

Karla Bloem '94 and Alice the owl

The Owl Advocate

Karla Bloem ’94 is learning about these beautiful birds one hoot at a time—and sharing her wisdom with the world

To hear Karla (Sylling) Bloem ’94 tell it, her life is the stage of an avian soap opera. Forget Alice, the much-beloved rescue owl that lives in Karla and husband Hein’s 1930s farmhouse—the real action is with Rusty and Iris, the mated pair that occupies an outbuilding on the property.

Owls adorn many things in Bloem's life, including her shed and zipper pull.
Owls adorn many things in Bloem's life, including her shed and zipper pull.

Bloem’s neck of the woods has been home to two other owl pairs, Victor and Virginia and Wendell and Wheezy (so named for her hoarse call). But one February, a new girl showed up: Scarlett Owl’Hara. Scarlett had the hoots—er, hots—for Rusty, and she made frequent attempts to get his attention through the metal- meshed enclosure during the middle of the afternoon (when owls are decidedly not supposed to be active), much to Iris’s chagrin. Soon enough, a Rhett showed up to act as Scarlett’s foil, but then a Delilah entered the equation, then Virginia died, and now Delilah can’t make up her mind between Victor and Rhett, while Scarlett is missing in action. Who needs cable when you’ve got The Feathered and the Restless in your backyard?

Monitoring the love lives of great horned owls is only a side business for Bloem; her actual research is on their vocalizations, which she began studying in self-defense from her beaked housemate, Alice. She also founded North America’s first international owl festival and is poised to open its only owl education center. And how she got into all that is a story of luck and determination.

Enraptured by raptors

Bloem was in the right place at the right time. She was a young biologist who had spent a couple of years cycling in and out of seasonal positions with the Minnesota Conservation Corps and DNR. She then turned to software support and income-tax preparation, spending the spring and fall seasons at a local plant nursery. But in 1996, the city of Houston learned the Root River State Trail, a 60-mile paved recreational path in southeast Minnesota, would be coming through town, and a Houston planning committee decided that it would build a nature center as the city’s trailhead. Bloem, who’d had the same idea, got in at the ground floor, eventually becoming the brand-new Houston Nature Center’s director—and adopting a very special ambassador for it.

Bloem had been advised to start programming early, to build support even before a brick-and- mortar building was in place. As a falconer who had kestrels, her mind naturally turned to raptors. But falconry birds aren’t program birds—they’re very standoffish. So when the opportunity arose to obtain—by special permit—an injured great horned owl that would never fly again, Bloem seized it.

At the Houston Nature Center, Bloem works with Alice over her shoulder.
At the Houston Nature Center, Bloem works with Alice over her shoulder.

Enter Alice, the regal prima donna and main at- traction of the Houston Nature Center. Because Alice fell from the nest at three weeks old and required frequent bandage-changing, she imprinted upon humans early, making her a great education bird. So great, in fact, that not only has she reached tens of thousands of people through Bloem’s outreach programs, but she’s also been featured in newspapers across the Midwest, in published books, on Animal Planet, and on several radio stations, including the BBC. She even testified successfully in front of the Minnesota House and Senate Environment Committees to have great horned owls removed from Minnesota’s un- protected birds list.

With no overnight staff at the nature center, Alice lives with the Bloems at their rural property five miles away. She commutes with Bloem to work each day, save for yearly maternity leave, when she keeps close vigil over her nest. While Alice’s eggs, unfertilized, do not hatch, it’s important to let her sit for the full incubation period so that she doesn’t just lay another set of eggs.

Alice started her days with the Bloems in a pen outside their turn-of-the-century farmhouse, but it wasn’t long before she wormed her way inside. She now has her very own moss-green bedroom, outfitted specifically for an owl, on the upper level, where her hoot, rich and resonant, echoes through the house.

“When she’s really loud,” Bloem says, “the filaments in the lightbulbs ring.”

The Bloem living room is command central for owl monitoring.
The Bloem living room is command central for owl monitoring.

Watching Bloem and Alice interact warms the heart, each of them bowing to one another and hooting variations on an interspecies theme. But it wasn’t always this way. As a human imprint, Alice thinks Bloem is her mate. When she vocalizes, she expects Bloem to respond. It took a while for the naturalist to get the memo, however.

“No book exists on how to be a male great horned owl,” Bloem says, exasperated. “There should be one. Of course, if there was, I’d have to write it,” she jokes.

“I finally realized I should be hooting with her,” she continues. “But when I did, she would walk to the edge of her perch and smack me on top of the head.” After a few years, Bloem noticed that Alice leans forward when she hoots, so Bloem followed suit. “And she was like, ‘Duh, you finally figured it out!’ and stopped smacking me on the head when I hooted. So I thought, I need to go to the scientific literature and find out what all this stuff means—kind of in self-defense! And I found out that nobody has studied it.”

Citizen science

With a field of inquiry virtually unexplored, Bloem, who never pursued graduate school, set out to research owl vocalizations. Between Alice and the cast of wild owls that frequents the Bloems’ property, she had plenty of subjects. But, she says, “I realized I needed a breeding pair, because how are you going to get the vocalizations within the eggs before they hatch? How are you going to record what happens after the owlets fledge? And when does a young great horned owl develop its full-blown territorial hoot? Do they have to practice first? Does it suddenly happen? Do males do it before females? Nobody knew.”

So Bloem secured permits from the Minnesota DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to breed a non-releasable pair of great horned owls, and she built a $25,000 habitat entirely through donations. The habitat now houses Rusty and Iris, who hatched successful triplets—Patrick, Pandora, and Patience—in 2013 and a pair of twins—Ruby and Rupert—this spring. The triplets were parent- reared, while the twins are being raised with lots of human interaction; Bloem is comparing the timing of the development of their vocalizations. “What we found with [both sets of] the owlets so far, which floored everybody, was that they were capable of doing the correct hoot without practicing in their squeaky, itty-bitty voices at just over two weeks old, no practicing needed. That was huge.”

What’s almost as remarkable as Bloem’s research itself is how it’s conducted? In the Bloems’ living room is an L-shaped desk that serves as command central. On it are several computers that amass footage from seven cameras in Rusty and Iris’s habitat.

On a winter afternoon, Bloem treks to the outbuilding that houses Rusty, Iris, and their offspring.
On a winter afternoon, Bloem treks to the outbuilding that houses Rusty, Iris, and their offspring.

The cameras send out two live video feeds that stream online to the public 24/7.

They draw a dedicated viewership, and so Bloem, who works full time in addition to orchestrating an owl festival and planning North America’s sole owl center, provides an e-form on which viewers can note owl vocalizations at specific times. Bloem then goes back and reviews the footage at the noted times. By this point, says Bloem, “My watchers know more than what’s in the scientific literature. They get really excited being part of the scientific discovery process.”

Bloem’s core watchers, which number about 20, live around the world and in a variety of situations—some have disabilities, some have trouble leaving the house easily—but one thing they have in common is their dedication. The owl cam chat room is alive and well throughout the day, with people greeting one another, catching up

on conversations, ducking out when they have a phone call or need to leave for work, and of course commenting on owl behavior. “Did Karla feed the kids today?” asks one, in reference to their feathered friends. “Aw man, missed a shower dance!” laments another who arrives to the owl cam too late to watch Ruby seek out rain dripping from the roof.

The viewers are so dedicated that they pooled money to install two pan-tilt-zoom cameras in the habitat for better viewing, and a few of the chat room moderators, in addition to Bloem, have re- mote control of them. When Rusty needed to have an eye removed as a result of a progressively worsening old injury, the cam watchers raised $1,500 for his surgery.

Of course, Bloem says, “Even human women love Rusty. Every woman who watches would marry him if she could. He is Mr. Attentive. Iris had to get her own food from the food tray the other night and someone said, ‘What is that?’ Because Rusty always thaws it out for her.”

And their food certainly does need thawing. Bloem feeds the owls a steady diet of frozen gopher, which she gets from a trapper in Eitzen, Minn. She keeps them in a sack in the basement deep freeze and butchers them with a pair of short-nosed scissors. When she drops the sack back in the chest, it makes a flat sound, like a brick—of all the owl devotees, Bloem is the most committed.

Bloem’s commitment and scholarship have gained her recognition, not only among owl-cam enthusiasts, but worldwide.

She has presented research in Germany and the Netherlands, and she recently presented in Argentina on the regional variation in vocalizations between North American and pockets of South American great horned owl species. She is preparing to publish findings, which suggest the great horned owls of South America may be one or more different species than their North American counterparts, which was discoverable through their different hoots.

“I never thought studying owl vocalization just be- cause I wanted self-defense with Alice would lead to this discussion of speciation and the splitting of species,” she marvels.

Owl Immersion

The town of Houston, Minn., has a population of about a thousand. But once a year, that number nearly doubles. The cause? The International Festival of Owls, which Bloem inaugurated in 2003 as a hatch-day party for Alice. The first one drew about 300 attendees, but the past couple years have been drawing crowds between 1,700 and 1,800 people.

It’s the only weekend- long, all-owl festival in North America, and people come from across the United States and a dozen countries to attend.

The event inspired similar festivals in Nepal and Italy, which welcomed 25,000 attendees to its most recent one.

In addition to the requisite fun activities such as owl-pellet dissection and a hooting contest (which Luther professor of biology Tex Sordahl frequently judges), Bloem’s festival also includes birding trips, a nighttime owl prowl, expert speakers from around the globe, and plenty of live-owl programs. Ruby and Rupert even hatched in real time (via owl cam) at the 2014 festival. One of the most special components, however, is the Owl Hall of Fame, which recognizes people who have made the world a better place for owls. One of this year’s winners, Dr. Motti Charter from Israel, transcended Middle Eastern politics and cultural tensions to get Israel, Jordan, and Palestine working together to replace rodenticides, which can devastate owl populations, with barn owls for pest control.

To learn about the planned International Owl Center, including how to donate, and to watch live footage of Rusty, Iris, and the twins, visit

Bloem wants people to enjoy the splendor of owls and spread a conservation message, but another intent of the festival is to raise funds for the Houston Nature Center and promote tourism in Houston during an otherwise slow time (the be- ginning of March). And while the festival might draw an even bigger audience in a larger, more accessible city, Bloem loves that the event is all- encompassing in Houston, with the Boy Scouts building nest boxes, church groups holding bake sales and an owl-faced pancake breakfast, the coffee shop serving owl-themed coffee, and local businesses decorating their windows with owls. “So when you come into Houston,” Bloem says, “it’s this immersion event every place you go. That’s what people really like about it, and you couldn’t do that in a bigger city. I’m doing it in a little town because everybody can support it. And it can help the community—it can open up new businesses and strengthen existing ones.”

If you build it, they will come

When the festival started gaining traction and drawing large crowds, Bloem thought, “Wow, there really is no public owl center in North America, which is why everybody is coming to our festival. This is kind of a glaring omission. Well, why don’t we do it since everyone is coming here anyway?”

She continues, “But my background is in biology. It’s not nonprofit business management or how to start a multimillion-dollar facility.” In 2008, though, she won a Bush Leadership Fellowship,

a flexible grant that invests in people working to better their communities. She used it to take nonprofit management courses, festival and event management courses, and courses on captive raptor care and wild raptor field techniques. She also visited other wildlife facilities, including the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., and the walk-through owl enclosures in the Bavarian Forest National Park.

Now she faces the long slog of trying to jigger all the pieces into place, most notably the fundraising. “It’s a challenge because right now I’m wearing two hats: nature center and owl center. And there’s also the research stuff. I’m stretched about as thin as I can get, so the fundraising has been a little slow,” though there have been a few notable gifts. But with an estimated operating budget of about $1 million a year (some of which will be paid for by admissions and merchandise) and costs for the eco-friendly main building and outdoor aviaries reaching several million, it’s a steep hill.

When the funds have been raised, the owl center will purchase a patchwork of properties that abut the Houston Nature Center, all of which became available through serendipity, and construct its best-case-scenario facility. In the meantime, Bloem has signed the lease on a temporary location, the Houston mercantile building, in order to generate awareness and support and give eager visitors a destination.

Bloem plans to house about two dozen species, both North American and foreign, at the center. “I would really like to get species that have messages associated with them, not just ‘This is a pretty owl.’ I want to say, ‘Here is the conservation message that goes with this owl, and here’s what you can do to help this species.’ ”

She continues, “In the beginning of my work as a naturalist, I was more about spewing facts, but now I want to give people real tools—concrete things to do in their daily lives—to make a real difference.” Some measures Bloem cites include not using rodenticides, protecting open spaces for burrowing owls, protecting old-growth forests for spotted owls, and leaving dead trees standing on your property for eastern screech owls.

It’s outreach like this drives Bloem. As she says, “If you’re just out there doing research, how much impact are you really having on the world? Not much, unless you’re bringing what you learn to the public.”

Whoo better than a patron of owls to speak such words of wisdom?