By Emma Horn
A BROWN masked owl dropped a letter down the chimney of a small brick home near London.
It was addressed to the resident of the Cupboard Under the Stairs at 4 Privet Drive. And it confirmed to Harry Potter that he was destined for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Ever since that moment was brought to the screen, people all over the world have wished for the same message.
In a study released in July, two British scientists found that owl populations all over Asia are being affected by something they call the “Harry Potter effect”: people who are so desperate to have their own Hogwarts experience they buy baby owls from illegal bird markets.
It’s a big problem in Indonesia, where the study found 20,500 owls were bought and sold every day!
Before the movies came out in the early 2000s, people in Indonesia called owls “ghost birds”. Now they’re known as “Harry Potter birds”.
Taking Australian owls
When owls become too hard to find in Asia, smugglers might start taking Australian owls out of the country.
Beth Mott, from BirdLife Australia, says this will be a big problem for the 10 native owl species that are either threatened or endangered.
“You can’t take them out of the population when they’re chicks [because] it’s obviously going to reduce the number of owls that are available at maturity to breed, and then you get population decline,” says Dr Mott.
“If we were to see the illegal pet trade moving into our owl populations we’d start to see really massive population decline here.”
And there’ll be more moths, grasshoppers, crickets and even mice and rats when there are fewer owls around to eat them.
For fiction only
From the moment Harry Potter took Hedwig home from Diagon Alley, he kept his snowy owl pet in a carry cage. Dr Mott worries that owl owners overseas do this too.
“Putting an owl inside a wire cage does really bad things for its eyesight and for its stress levels too, which could cause it not to live very long,” she says.
The author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, is worried too. On August 25 she said on Twitter: “I’ve just read a disturbing story about owls kept as pets. Much like making Horcruxes, this practice belongs in fiction. Please don’t.”
Hiding in the dark
Although they are natural predators, owls are very shy birds that wouldn’t make very good pets.
“People misunderstand owls,” says Dr Mott. “Owls will always try and stay away and hide themselves in a dark place and be really unobtrusive. That’s what all that plumage is about, just making sure they’re incredibly camouflaged.”