Lois the great horned owl sat on her perch, scanning the crowd with her large, striking yellow eyes, awaiting her cue.
As Gail Buhl set a treat on the stand across the room, Lois spread her wings and leapt from the perch, taking a shallow swoop, nearly skimming the heads of the crowd as they ducked in awe of the three-and-a-half pound bird silently slipping by.
The ninth annual International Festival of Owls brought four live owls together from the Houston Nature Center and the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center to teach and interact with a full gymnasium of people at Houston Elementary School on Saturday.
The program, which kicked off Friday and runs through today, offers owl prowls, nest box building, owl literature, pellet dissection, face painting and owl calling contests to entertain and educate Minnesotans about these prominent birds. But Buhl, program manager at the Raptor Center, also hoped to tackle a common misconception about the owl: They're dangerous to humans.
"A lot of people are afraid of them," Buhl said. "Great horned owls will go after things they think they can catch, but very seldom do (owls) do anything that is bad."
A live show featuring Lois, an eastern screech owl, a boreal owl and a second great horned owl allowed the audience to see and learn about the bird with the mystery factor.
"There's something about them that you just can't put your finger on," said Karla Bloem, director of the Houston Nature Center and "mate" of Alice the great horned owl, the only live animal at the Houston center. "What is it? It's there, but I don't think anyone knows exactly what that is."
The first owl, a boreal owl named Aboreas, came from the northern forests of Minnesota and Canada. This species is "going down" for unidentified reasons, according to Buhl. The second owl was a red, full-grown eastern screech owl named Otus, which can be found in the local area. This species spends all winter here and only weighs about four ounces.
Also in the Winona area are great horned owls like Lois, which Buhl said are "extremely important to the environment," as they, like many predators, keep certain populations balanced, such as mice. When Lois was taken out of her crate, the children gasped at the large, arctic white female. She only weighed three-and-a-half pounds with her lightweight, fuzzy feathers and nearly hollow bones. She showed her ability to turn her head 270 degrees as she checked out her surroundings - walls covered in owl silhouettes and drawings, and rows of kids covered in owl face paint, with their parents, all watching her.
Buhl caught her attention with a dead mouse, which Lois quickly snatched in her beak and stood very still. But she let her prey dangle for awhile, and the crowd laughed as she showed off her treat before snapping it farther up into her beak, inch-by-inch. After just a couple chomps, Lois swallowed her prey.
She got more rewards as she soared from perch to perch, her talons just inches from the tops of observers' heads. But she flies low for a reason.
"If you duck when she flies over, she'll just fly lower," Buhl explained. "Flying takes a lot of energy. She pushes down on the air above your heads like a spring to make it easier (to fly)."
And allowing people to see owls up close helps the audience "make visual connections" in everyday life. That way, when they hear a "hoot" on a walk or in their backyards, they'll remember the birds they met at the festival.
"Many times, we don't pay attention," Buhl said. "If we start paying attention, they're there. They're our neighbors."