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Harry Potter's Snowy Owl: Not Just for Wizards

Hedwig's cousin? A snowy owl glides over a northern landscape. Unlike many owls, snowy owls are active during the day. (Image credit: dreamstime.)

With a mixture of elation and sadness, the Potter faithful will stampede to movie theaters this week, and, for the last time ever, request a ticket for Harry Potter.

The release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" marks the end of an era. But a new beginning has come for one of the creatures thrust into the cultural limelight by the beloved books: the snowy owl.

Harry Potter's faithful snowy owl companion Hedwig sparked particular interest in the striking and very large white birds. As early as 2001, the BBC reported soaring demand for the birds as pets, thanks to their prominent role in the series. The attention possibly even triggered a recent owl crisis in India.

But the news for snowy owls isn't all bad: Keepers at a zoo in Washington are saying hello to a brand-new addition, and one that carries a vague hint of Harry Potter magic.

Whooo's hiding back there? A snowy owl chick, just a month old, at the Woodland Park Zoo. (Image credit: James Scott/Woodland Park Zoo.)

Bird beginnings

Just in time for the movie's premiere, a snowy owl has been born at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. The little owlet hatched on June 13, and is quickly growing, according to Tina Mullett, animal collections manager at the zoo.

"It's growing really fast and doing really well and it's almost as big as the parents at this point, which is amazing," Mullett said.

No wizardry is required for the owlet's astonishing growth. Snowy owls, native to the high north and the Arctic, nest on the ground, so the young must grow quickly in order to escape hungry predators. They're the heaviest of the North American owls; adults can weigh in at 5 pounds (2.2 kilograms), with a wingspan of up to 5 feet (1.5 meters).

The owlet is the first for the zoo's snowy owls. The pair has been breeding since 2007, but, until now, had never produced a fertilized egg.

With the serendipitous birth, it seemed appropriate to find out how well the fast-growing raptor stacks up to its fictional animal counterpart.

In the wild, this snowy owlet would soon learn to hunt lemmings, the species' favorite food, on the cold tundra. (Image credit: James Scott/Woodland Park Zoo.)

Bird background check

"They're pretty intelligent birds," Mullett told OurAmazingPlanet. "They're really easy to train if you get them young."

So could it be that among the cast of fantastical characters that populate J.K. Rowling's universe, a faithful and capable owl is one of the least far-fetched? Perhaps, according to Laura Erickson, someone uniquely positioned to know. Erickson, a bird expert and science editor for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has a book on owls coming out this fall and is also a devoted Harry Potter fan.

"I did the calculations and they could carry a Nimbus 2000," Erickson told OurAmazingPlanet. (For the uninitiated, a Nimbus 2000 is a flying broom Hedwig delivers to Harry Potter via her talons.)

However, Erickson said, despite the species' innate abilities, the movies used CGI to place the broom in the snowy owl's talons.

In addition, she said, the movies' Hedwig is in, er, owl drag. All the owls used in the films were males; they're slightly smaller and nearly pure white, as opposed to females, larger birds whose white bodies are peppered with darker feathers.

Erickson also said it would be entirely possible for the various owls described in the series to carry envelopes, the preferred method of communication amongst magic folk.

"A message from a wizard would weigh no more than the kind of prey they would normally catch," Erickson said. And she can point to not only academic knowledge of owls' abilities, but firsthand experience.

Erickson, dressed as 'Professor McGonagowl' with Archimedes. (Image credit: © Russell Erickson.)

Owlish companions

Erickson has her very own owl. Archimides is an eastern screech owl a dainty species that closely resembles descriptions and illustrations of Ron Weasley's owl Pigwidgeon. Even Archimedes, a tiny owl, handily darts around with mice in his talons; thankfully, for the sake of his housemate, they never escape.

"I buy frozen mice, pre-killed," Erickson said.

And in addition to the physical feats owls can pull off, Erickson said the birds' seemingly strong bond with humans depicted in the series is possible without the help of magic given the right circumstances.

"They're very responsive birds," Erickson said. Many non-migratory owl species mate for life. "The ones that stay on the same territory do bond and stay together year after year," she said. Erickson's owl is so devoted he preens Erickson's hair.

Yet if you'd like a faithful companion that can carry a broom, or, more likely, dead mice, you're better off in Harry Potter's homeland than the United States. With a proper license, owls and other raptors can be kept as pets in the U.K, but in the U.S., the practice is strictly prohibited.

Erickson has a special permit that allows her to keep Archimedes for educational purposes. He nearly died as a baby, and, once resuscitated, was too imprinted with humans to return to the wild. Erickson is only allowed to keep the owl because she uses him for talks and presentations.

And although Archimedes is confined to a very large cage while in the house, Erickson does take her owl for walks. With a leash attached to his legs and her wrist, Archimedes wheeling overhead, the odd pair have become a fixture in Erickson's Duluth, Minn., neighborhood.

Because of owls' significance in the Harry Potter series, Erickson has regularly put in appearances (in full witch getup) with each movie and book release, but this year, the calls have been sparse.

Spoiler alert!

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Hedwig is killed in the final book, struck down by an evil wizard's killing curse as she sits in her cage on Harry's lap. The two are aboard a flying motorbike, trying to escape a horde of evildoers.

"I can't imagine that Harry would have brought her in her cage," Erickson said. "That seemed too stupid. This was the one case where I thought the movie did a far superior job of dealing with it."

In the previous film, which recounts the first half of the final Harry Potter book, Hedwig is indeed aboard the flying motorbike, but uncaged. When the attack comes, Hedwig flies in the face of the attacker, trying to defend her master. She is killed, but "while she's doing something heroic," Erickson said. "I thought as a character she deserved that."

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.