Animal Tales: Harry Potter owls

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Science News  |  Nov. 29, 2002 at 12:04 PM
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In the new movie, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" the young wizard keeps a snowy owl named Hedwig in a birdcage in his room.

In the 1985 movie, "Out of Africa," Karen Blixen is given a baby owl by a child of the Kikuyu tribe. From time to time, it is glimpsed sitting placidly on a perch at her desk, seeming to need neither food nor water nor cage paper.

Though these images make the birds seem idyllic and attractive, experts warn against the idea of obtaining owls as pets.

"With the exposure that the (Harry Potter) movie is getting, we're concerned that ... some people may think owning an owl is a good idea -- it's not, in fact, it's illegal in the United States, but not in Britain," Karen Foerstel, spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy in Washington, told United Press International's Animal Tales.

"In the movie, the owls deliver mail to the children at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft and they're good friends and appear tame, but in reality they are wild animals that must fly miles each day to hunt for food and cannot be kept in cages."

The issue of captivity can be critical, Foerstel says.

"In real life, you can't keep an owl in a cage because they are birds of prey who fly for miles and hunt rabbits, rodents or birds and eat them whole and regurgitate pieces of bone and fur, so cleaning up after them isn't fun," Foerstel said. "A snowy owl like Harry's Hedwig would fly for miles to hunt lemmings or catch birds in midair in its native arctic tundra."

Although it is possible for an owl to live in captivity, she said, such an arrangement could require a long-term commitment from the owner. The birds live up to 9 years in the wild but one captive bird has lived for at least 28 years.

There are 19 species of owls that inhabit North America -- out of 130 species in the world -- including the tiny Elf Owl, which stands less than 6 inches tall, to the Great Gray Owl, which stands nearly 30 inches tall with a wing span of more than 50 inches -- both of which appear in the Harry Potter movie.

"With movies today, it's difficult to know what is real and what isn't, considering they can use mechanical animals, computer-generated animals inserted in the film and even dead animals that have been stuffed," Foerstel said. "Harry's snowy owl is bright white and a beautiful animal about 24 inches tall that lives in a cold climate in the northern United States and Canada, but it could go south to follow food."

The food of choice for the snowy owl is lemmings, a type of wild rodent, but the owl also eats small mammals and birds and in winter migrates to the northern Great Plains, returning to the colder climate to nest.

Most owls are nocturnal, sleeping in the daytime and hunting at night. Their eyes are 10 times as light-sensitive as human eyes -- their pupils dilate immensely, each independent of the other -- however, snowy owls hunt mainly in the daytime.

"Owls have dish-faced heads that can move 270-degrees around," Bob McCready, director of The Nature Conservancy's Prairie Wings project, told UPI's Animal Tales. "They use soundwaves like bats do, they use sonar to detect not only the sound but the sound's direction."

Owls have lopsided, oblong ear slits with the right slit slightly higher than the left, which helps them determine a sound's direction. Another hunting advantage in owls is their broad wings and widely spaced feathers, which make it possible for them to fly silently.

According to the Web site, owls in many cultures represent wisdom and knowledge because their nocturnal vigilance evokes a studious scholar or wise elder. Some Native American cultures link owls with supernatural knowledge and divination.

"An owl's appearance at night, when people are helpless and blind, linked to the unknown, its eerie call filled people with foreboding and apprehension: death was imminent or some evil was at hand, but during the 18th century the zoological aspects of the owl was detailed through close observation, reducing their mystery, and in the 20th century the owl returned as a symbol of wisdom," according to

The Nature Conservancy offers owl-sighting tours year-round in several parts of the country including a guided walk in New York City's Central Park to glimpse the Eastern screech owls.

"Owls don't have a lot of predators, but like most birds, their biggest threat is losing habitat," McCready said. "Some owls are threatened, but some are flourishing -- there are many different kinds of owls that live in different kinds of environments."

McCready said some species such as barn owls or the great horned owls are doing well because some of their former forest habitat areas that had been farmed or logged have regrown, thereby restoring habitat. Some barn owls also live in tall abandoned buildings, but habitat-specific species such as burrowed owls are threatened.

"Burrowed owls are in an overall decline in the Great Plains because burrowing owls live in the abandoned holes of prairie dogs holes," McCready said. "Because the prairie dogs are being eliminated through agricultural and urban encroachment, the homes of the owls are being lost. Habitat-specific animals have a hard time adjusting to ecological changes."

The Nature Conservancy also is involved in 12 habitat restoration projects for the burrowing owl in North America.

According to National Geographic News, environmentalists are hoping the popularity of Harry Potter's Hedwig will spark more interest in their efforts to ban oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Snowy owls are among the more than 140 bird species with habitats in the refuge.

"There are many reasons to ban oil drilling in the refuge but losing habitat for the snowy owl is not one of them," Charles Duncan, with The Nature Conservancy in Maine, UPI's Animal Tales. "While it may affect the local snowy owl population, the species is widely distributed and is not threatened."

One species that is threatened is the northern spotted owl, a medium-sized, dark brown owl that inhabits old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest region from southwestern British Columbia to central California. It was listed as threatened in 1990 and frequently has been at the center of debates regarding forest management on federal lands.

As a result, studies of spotted owls are many and diverse, including studies of population dynamics, diet, habitat, prey, dispersal, behavior, physiology, and genetics.

However, Eric D. Forsman, of the U.S. Forest Service in Corvallis, Ore., said despite this large investment in research and monitoring, spotted owl population trends are still not fully understood, especially in relation to changing habitat conditions.

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