If you appreciate owls and reside in Houston, Winona or Fillmore counties, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the International Owl Center for free Saturday and Sunday.

While the annual Minnesota Neighbor Weekend was started in 2015 in response to lower numbers of visitors during the winter, when tourism falls off, there is much more to the opportunity than simply raising attendance.

“We also want to make sure that the local people have a special excuse to come and visit, because local people, wherever you are, tend not to do the things that are in their area. They go elsewhere, unless their relatives are visiting,” Karla Bloem, executive director at the International Owl Center, said.

She said it also helps eliminate cost barriers that might be in place for locals who want to visit the center.

The weekend will include live owl programs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., which are often quite popular.

Bloem said these programs might end up with standing room only, so she recommends arriving early.

The programs are based on who is in the audience, Bloem said. She said that if the audience is a mix of ages, the program often chosen focuses on how to identify different types of owls.

The audience will be able to enjoy listening to different owl sounds and what characteristics the creatures have, learning what matches each type of owl. There will be opportunities for visitors to practice owl calls also.

The visitors will be able to test their skills after the program with a short quiz.

Live owls Ruby the Great Horned Owl, Uhu the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Piper the American Barn Owl and JR the Eastern Screech-Owl are included in the programs.

Away from the programs, attendees will have access to many different resources to learn about owls more in depth. They can enjoy seeing owl artwork, touchable wings and tails, eggs, skulls and more.

“Most people really, really enjoy coming because you can’t just get up in the morning and say, ‘Well, I’m going to go out and see some owls today n the wild.’ I mean, very, very, very few people ever are in a situation where they can do that,” Bloem said.

“They’re so secretive that you just really don’t get to experience them much otherwise. So, having an owl center where you can come and see four live animals is pretty amazing for people,” she said.

Bloem said that many visitors enjoy learning about owls because they are intriguing, as they can often be heard but rarely ever clearly seen in the wild.

There is an importance to learning about them, though, beyond simply an interest.

“They’re very important environmentally,” Bloem said. She said they are top predators, which means they eat rodents and keep their populations under control.

“One of our goals is so that everybody knows what owls they have in their backyard,” she said.

She also said she hopes the center can help people learn how to and want to help owls.

While visiting the center, people can also take a moment to tour Houston and see 12 owl sculptures. Barista’s Coffee House in Houston is decorated with owls, also.

Visitors should bring a form of identification, such as a driver’s license or student ID, to prove that they live or go to school in these counties.

People who do not live in these counties are more than welcome to visit this weekend, but will be required to pay the normal admission fees of $7 for adults and $4 for children between ages 4 and 17.

The annual Wisconsin Neighbor Weekend is set for Feb. 15 and 16. People who live in La Crosse, Trempealeau and Vernon counties will have free admission into the International Owl Center.

For more information about the International Owl Center, visit www.internationalowlcenter.org.

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