May 29, 2003 

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Harry Potter’s Owl (video)
November 05, 2002

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Interviewees: Jo Cowen, University of California, Davis.

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Produced by Anne Marie Cunningham

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy of the Huntington Society of Canada.

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Elsewhere on the web

Vermont Raptor Center

Cornell 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.

Harry Potter's Animals - Would They Make Good Pets?

Potter's Owls: Born to be Wild

Harry Potter books and movies

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 owl.

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 University 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 nesting 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.

by Ann Marie Cunningham

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