University Library of Natural Sounds - provided the Western
screech owl's sounds heard in our story, as well as the cry of
the Phoenix heard in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Potter's Animals - Would They Make Good Pets?
Owls: Born to be Wild
Harry Potter books
This happens often when animals star in a major movie. Harry Potter is back,
and along with him, a barrage of phone calls to nature groups from people
who want an owl just like Harry's.
As this ScienCentral News video reports, owls make terrible pets. But there
is a way you can adopt one.
What Harry Potter leaves out
Nocturnal hunters, swift and silent, aided by huge, alert eyes, super-soft
feathers, and sensitive hearing. Owls are enormously interesting and appealing
creatures. In the Harry Potter books and movies, Harry and other young wizards
studying at Hogwarts School have pet owls that deliver messages and mail.
Historically, owls have long been associated with magic, and have made many
appearances in classical mythology. But it is not accurate to think of them
as possible pets.
Owls are raptors, or birds of prey, that live best in the wild. There are 18
species of owls in North America, and more than 150 worldwide. Harry Potter's
own owl, Hedwig, is a female snowy owl, a particularly beautiful bird. In
the winter months, snowy owls migrate south from their home on the Arctic
tundra in search of rodents, and have been sighted in southern Canada and
the northeastern United States. One year, a snowy owl spent several weeks
wintering at Jamaica Bay, N.Y. Annually, the National Audubon Society organizes
its Christmas Bird Count.
You might see a snowy owl, or some of the other owls featured in the Harry
Potter series, including the eagle owl, the elf owl, the barn owl, the great
horned owl, the short-eared owl, the tawny owls, and the screech
At present, the most endangered North American owl is the burrowing owl, which
nests in the ground, in burrows dug by badgers or prairie dogs in the Great
Plains. Many communities are exterminating badgers and prairie dogs as pests
-- and burrowing owls along with them. The Nature Conservancy's Prairie
Wings project is working to save the burrowing owl and 12 other prairie
birds currently at great risk. The Conservancy also is monitoring the flight
paths of migrating owls, to determine which lands should be protected to save
the birds. Many of the Conservancy's preserves conduct owl-sighting tours
year round. The Conservancy's New York chapter offers guided walks through
Central Park, home to several species, including saw whet owls.
Most owls consume rodents like rats and mice; some species also eat large
insects, like moths. In the wild, owls are excellent at controlling rodent
populations, so much so that some communities build owls nesting boxes to
keep them around. According to Jo Cowen, education coordinator at the University
of California, Davis' Raptor Center, a small owl, such as a Western screech
owl, eats about five mice in a single day. A larger owl, like a great horned
owl, can eat a dozen mice daily, and a barn owl feeding a nest full of young
may catch more than 20 mice in one day.
Don't Try This at Home
In the United States, it is illegal to keep an owl or any other raptor as a
pet, and penalties are severe. Most states do have a raptor rehabilitation
center, where you can view owls. Cornell
University's Raptor Program offers links to several American raptor centers.)
There injured birds are cared for until they can return to the wild, and birds
too handicapped to be released can live out their lives safely. If you find
an injured or orphaned owl, you should take it to a raptor center. An orphan
can be reared by an unreleaseable owl, who can teach it to survive on its
own. It will be fed the diet of rodents it needs to thrive, until it is old
enough to fly. The University of California, Davis' Raptor Center feeds its
resident owls frozen mice,
which are expensive. Jo Cowen points
out that "it can cost you as much to feed your owl, as to feed your child."
While owls are far from suitable pets, you can "adopt" an owl by
making a financial contribution to a raptor center. In return, you usually
receive a photograph of "your" owl, a certificate of adoption, and
a fact sheet about the individual owl and its species. Some centers send out
periodic bulletins on your owl's health. At the
of Minnesota's Raptor Center, once your owl is well enough, you are able
to release it yourself.
Besides contributing to owls' rehabilitation at raptor centers, there are other
ways to help them. In their place at the top of the food chain, owls are known
as indicator species, meaning that their health and numbers may reflect subtle
changes in the environment before they affect us. Because great horned owls
in the Midwest are succumbing
to West Nile virus, the Minnesota Raptor Center is collaborating with
other research institutions to develop a vaccine. Owls also are vulnerable
to climate change, and to pesticides or other contaminants that their rodent
prey may have eaten.
Most owls need covered, secure places in which to build nests and rear their
young. And since most owls nest in large, mature trees -- even ones in suburban
or urban parks -- they are hurt whenever such trees are cut down for lumber
or housing developments. Barn owls (Catherine Carr, "Neuroscience: Sounds,
Signals and Space Maps," Nature, 415, January 2002) prefer to nest in
old barns, which are being torn and replaced by metal sheds. You can help
owls survive by building simple, inexpensive
boxes for them.
There are many ways to express your admiration and concern for owls. All of
them are better for owls and for people, than thinking of owls as pets.