Potter’s Owls: Born to be Wild

In the Harry Potter movie, an owl serves double duty as the young wizard's pet and personal mail carrier. With the movie breaking ticket sales records, some children are clamoring to own an owl as a pet.

But this holiday season these children would do better with a stuffed toy or a doll of some kind – unless you don't mind hefty fines or a stay in a federal prison. It is illegal to capture or own an owl or even a piece of an owl – living or dead – without appropriate permits from local governments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That even includes owning a feather from an owl.

Owls are fascinating creatures and many are rather docile in temperament, but they should be left to the wild or to experts trained in the habits and care of these kinds of birds.

Why are these seemingly docile birds off-limits? For one thing, they have never been domesticated. They are intelligent and can be trained – as shown by the movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" – but they are not meant to be locked up. Conservationists agree that they should not be taken out of their habitat to serve as companion birds. A wild owl will violently oppose any attempt to trap or confine it.

Another reason why owls should never be kept as pets is their unstable status in North America. In many parts of the continent, owls are endangered (along with many other predatory birds). Scientists are attempting to restore the owl population by saving habitats and establishing breeding programs.

Furthermore, an owl is not like your grandmother's sweet cockatiel – their feeding habits are not for the squeamish. Take Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig, for instance. Known scientifically as the Snowy (Nyctea scandiaca), this bird of prey feeds on small mammals such as rabbits and mice, as well as lemmings, fish and marine mammals. They seize and kill prey with their sharp claws, then gobble them whole, if possible, or tear at them using their strong, sharp beaks. Afterwards, owls regurgitate pieces of bones, fur and anything else that they can't digest. In other words, feeding and cleaning up after an owl is not exactly the most appetizing thing you can do before or after your own dinner.

A Hunting Machine

Owls are part of the family of birds called "raptors," which includes eagles, hawks, vultures and harriers. Like its cousins, the owl possesses excellent hunting skills. Active during the night, the owl has great eyesight (10 times more powerful than yours) and unmatched hearing ability among birds. Not only can they rotate their head three quarters of the way around their body, but their facial feathers actually serve to amplify and channel sounds to the ears. Their ears, interestingly, are asymmetrical: one is larger than the other.

North America is home to 18 species of owls. Some, such as the screech owl (which actually makes sounds closer to singing than screeching), live in one place all year, while others migrate like the Snowy, depending on the season.

However, disappearing habitats and hunting by people have reduced the population of predatory birds as a whole, including the owl. In 1972, the federal government made it illegal to capture or kill predatory birds. This list, by the way, includes the American bald eagle.

So, if you are thinking about an owl for a pet, think again. Human interference is the worst threat to their survival as a species. In fact, one rescue organization notes that 90 percent of the owls it rescues are injured by people, either accidentally or intentionally.