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The Great-horned Owl of Houston

Sun, Jul 2nd, 2000
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A visit to the areas newest Nature Center
By Nancy OvercottMonday, July 3, 2000

A loud piercing shriek startles me and a Red-winged Blackbird flies so close I can feel the rush of his wings. Naturalist Karla Kinstler tells me that the blackbird is protecting his fledglings; he greets everyone who comes to the new Houston Nature Center (HNC) in the same manner.

The people of Houston began to make plans for a nature center when they learned that the Root River State Trail would come through their town. At about the same time, the city needed to acquire eighteen acres along the Root River to have its levee refurbished. Fixing the levee resulted in the formation of a wetland near a small wetland that already existed. The town's people decided to place the center in this area and appoint Karla Kinstler as its naturalist.

Karla graduated from Luther College in 1994 with a degree in biology. She became interested in nature when, as a young girl, while raking hay on her family's farm near Spring Grove, she noticed Red-tailed Hawks following her to grab up the small rodents she exposed. The hawks sparked her interest in birds of prey.

Following college, she worked for the Minnesota Conservation Core in Caledonia and as a naturalist at Forestville State Park. I first met her at Forestville when I attended her talk on falconry in which she displayed Duncan, an American Kestrel, North America's smallest falcon. She tells me now that she no longer has Duncan; one day while he was free-flying, two other kestrels chased him away and in spite of much searching, she never found him.


In 1998, Karla acquired Alice, a Great-horned Owl. When Alice was a nestling, someone shot her father, brother and mother and Alice fell out of her nest, permanently damaging a wing. Her brother and father died of their injuries. Marge Gibson, a softhearted bird rehabilitator in Antigo, Wisconsin, brought Alice back to health. Alice's mother also survived her injuries and is now a teaching bird like her daughter.

Because she is imprinted on humans and can only fly short distances, Alice can not survive in the wild. She is now three years old and may live to thirty. She lives with Karla and her husband Ken in their home in Houston. Although she has a room of her own, she flies around the house at will. She has a favorite window from which she watches birds. Her favorite place to sleep is on top of a bookcase. She has a favorite blanket that she pounces on and attacks. To satisfy her preening instinct in the absence of other owls (owls normally preen each other), Alice preens Ken and Karla, working through their hair and nibbling their ears. They, of course, must return the favor. She makes soft noises for attention, responds to hugs by ruffling or rousing her feathers and screeches when her humans are gone too long.

As we visit, Alice sits in her mews (large open-air cage) peacefully watching birds. The mews is near a small sno-cone hut that serves as the HNC's temporary headquarters. Karla shows me plans for a permanent building to be constructed through a federal grant; it will consist of a lobby, offices, a display area and an interpretive area.

At the entrance to the temporary building is a large sign with the center's logo, which incorporates the name of the center with the abstract face of a Great-horned Owl. Inside, displays and specimens, most of which Karla has prepared herself, cover several tables and the walls.

While at Luther, Karla worked as a museum assistant for Tex Sordahl, resident ornithologist and biology professor. From Professor Sordahl, she learned how to prepare and catalog bones, feathers, body parts and skins. She shows me now how she has tagged each specimen according to accepted standards and has cataloged it in phylogenetic and numerical order.
KARLA KINTSLER is originally from Spring Grove and a graduate of Luther College in Decorah. The wetland area of the Houston Nature Center is a great place to observe many species of birds and waterfowl. Photo by Nancy Overcott

In the past, specimens were collected by the deliberate killing of birds and other creatures. This is no longer the case. Specimens are now acquired when animals die from accidents or old age.

When builder and volunteer, Wayne Dosch, arrives to deliver an outdoor bulletin board, I have a few moments alone to look at Karla's displays. In a corner, I find prairie seed packets; above the desk, a display of field guides; and hanging from the ceiling, tee shirts and sweatshirts
printed with HNC's logo. On one table, I find woodpecker wings, heads, bills, tails, feet and tongues along with careful descriptions and labels. On other tables are the equivalent body parts of birds of prey along with samples of owl pellets, fossils, the skin of a fawn and skulls of coyotes, raccoons and squirrels. The shed skin of a Timber Rattler hangs in a long tube on the back wall.

Because of recent heavy rain and flooding, the Root River Trail from Money Creek Woods to Houston is temporarily closed; three sections of blacktop have disappeared. When I go outside to take a photograph of Wayne and Karla unloading the bulletin board, I find that it is raining again. Before it stops, two more inches will fall.

Although the Trail is an important part of the HNC, it is not the only place in and around Houston from which to observe nature. Both wetland areas are accessible by paths. While walking around these paths during the Root River Birding Festival in April, we watched Blue and Green-winged Teal floating on one of the ponds, sandpipers poking in the mud and Tree Swallows picking insects out of the air. Karla says a Spotted Sandpiper is still here and may have a nest nearby. Dickcissels and a Yellow-headed Blackbird have also arrived.

A different type of habitat can be found in Houston's South Park, accessible by following Grant Street up into the bluffs. There, one can find deer, raccoons, fox and many species of birds, including Tufted Titmice, Orchard Orioles and Eastern Towhees. One of the park's many trails connects with the nearby Wet Bark Trail.

Other good areas not far from Houston include Mound Prairie Wildlife Management Area where one can find nesting Sandhill Cranes; Forest Ridge, Money Creek, and Reno Bottoms Forest Management Units; Shepherds Marsh near LaCrescent; and Beaver Creek, the crown jewel of Minnesota state parks.

Karla is presently gathering information for a comprehensive list of Houston County birds that will include habitat type for each bird, maps and directions to all the above areas. A field checklist for area birds is available now, as is a brochure describing the nature center.

The center is open 12:30 to 4:30 Thursdays and Sundays and 9:30 to 4:30 Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays. Activities include bird hikes, prairie walks and birds of prey programs. Alice will be present in her mews during all open hours unless the weather is stormy or the temperature is over 90 degrees.

The HNC is on the east end of the Root River Trail in Houston and is accessible by taking west Plum Street off Highway 76 on the north side of town. For more information, call 507-896-HOOT.

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