Is Harry Potter Partly to Blame for India's Pet Owl Crisis?

Snowy owls, like Harry Potter's Hedwig, have wingspans of about 5 feet and they are known to swallow prey, such as lemmings, whole. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

India is currently weathering an endangered owl crisis, and Harry Potter may be partly to blame.

According to India's Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh, the country's population has become infatuated with owls as a result of the Harry Potter book series and films. In fact, many parents have bought wild owls from illegal bird traders to give the creatures to their children as pets, according to Ramesh.

"Following Harry Potter, there seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls," Ramesh told the BBC.

Owls are featured in the Harry Potter book and film series to deliver mail to other wizards. Harry's pet owl Hedwig – a snowy owl – was given to him as a birthday gift.

Ramesh's comments coincided with the release of a new report from the conservation group Traffic, which studied the illegal trade, trapping and utilization of owls in India.

Harry Potter isn't the only one to blame: One of the prime drivers of the covert trade is the use of owls in black magic and sorcery driven by superstition, totems and taboos, according to the Traffic report. Black magic practitioners prescribe the use of owls and their body parts for ceremonial pujas, or religious rituals.

The owls are also becoming popular in India as entertainment for theme parties. The report's lead author and ornithologist, Abrar Ahmed, recounted a call he received from a mother requesting a white-colored owl for her son's 10th birthday party. Perplexed, he asked if the owl would be a gift for the boy.

The mother responded, "No, the party theme is 'Harry Potter' and we want to have 'Hedwig' – Harry's pet owl. Please ask someone to capture and bring the owl to us. We can pay the cost."

The woman apparently didn't realize that hunting (or capturing in any way) and trading of all Indian owl species is banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 of India. (Ahmed said the woman continued to ask for a white owl for her son's birthday party.)

Even with this ban, the number of owls living in India is in the thousands, though there's no exact population count.

Now, Traffic is calling for measures — including better law enforcement — to curb the trade in owls immediately. It also aims to create awareness of the critical role of owls in the ecosystem, such as their use in keeping rodents and other crop pests away on farmlands.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling responded to Ramesh's comments and the outcry in the media on her website.

"There has been a spate of stories in the press recently concerning the upswing in popularity of keeping owls as pets, allegedly as a result of the Harry Potter books," Rowling wrote.

"If it is true that anybody has been influenced by my books to think that an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can: please don't."

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows :Part 1" will be released in movie theaters on Friday, Nov.19.

Samantha Murphy is a senior writer for TechNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Samantha Murphy
Samantha Murphy was a contributor to Live Science, covering the tech industry. She holds a degree in journalism and cinema studies from New York University.