Snowy owl by Barbara J. Fleming
A male snowy owl hovers over a field near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo by Barbara J. Fleming.

With the final Harry Potter movie opening this week, J.K. Rowling fans across the country will once again have their minds on owls. On her website, The Owls of Harry Potter, writer, photographer and radio producer Laura Erickson notes: “In J.K. Rowling’s wonderful universe, owls bridge the magical and muggle world, carrying messages, packages and even Nimbus 2000s with ease as they make it clear to muggles that when a message needs to get through, it WILL get through.”

Potter’s fans may be focusing particularly on snowy owls, because the young wizard keeps one, named Hedwig, as a pet. Though Hedwig is supposed to be female, Erickson points out that the “actors” who have played her—seven different individuals—are all male birds. Unlike snow-white mature males, females and juveniles have dark markings on their bodies.

The Truth About Snowy Owls

In the real world, snowy owls live in the arctic tundra of North America, Europe and Asia, moving down to southern Canada and the northern United States during winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the species is “the northernmost, heaviest and most distinctively marked owl of North America.” And unlike most owl species, snowy owls are primarily diurnal: active during the daytime rather than at night.

Once ranging farther south than they do today, snowy owls are depicted in cave drawings etched by Paleolithic people in what is now France—the oldest recognizable bird species shown in prehistoric art anywhere in the world.

Boom and Bust Cycles

Snowy owls depend heavily on lemmings as their major food source. When lemmings are scarce, however, they will prey on nearly anything, from snowshoe hares, ground squirrels, voles, mice and rats to grebes, ducks, pheasants and ptarmigan to fish and carrion. Trappers report that some of the raptors have learned to follow trap lines where they nab both captured animals and bait.

How far south snowy owls migrate for the winter can depend on the abundance of lemmings, whose populations periodically crash. In years with few lemmings, the owls may not breed at all. Their nestlings need to eat about two lemmings per day, and an owl family may consume 1,500 of the rodents during the course of the breeding season. Some scientists worry that global warming may shift the distribution of lemmings in the Arctic, potentially threatening snowy owls in the future.

Too Much Love?

In Harry Potter’s magical world, Hedwig and the rest of the owls have no such worries. But the popularity of the movies and books could itself pose a threat to owls in the wild. According to an article published in Mother Jones, India’s minister of the environment has attributed an increase in illegal owl trading to Potter’s fame. “Following Harry Potter, there seems to be a strange fascination even among urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls,” minister Jairam Ramesh told the BBC.

A report from the environmental group Traffic found that more than a dozen species of owls are illegally caught and sold in India—for as little as $4.50 apiece. Some birds are sold as pets, but the majority are used in folk medicine or magic. In the United States, owls are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to possess an owl unless you have a federal permit to use it for research or education. Even then, the owl must be a rescued bird that is too damaged to be released back to the wild.

Voice: Snowy owls are virtually silent except during the breeding season. A courting male (rarely heard) gives a deep, hoarse hoot, a crowlike bark and a long, reedy screech.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, The Owls of Harry Potter, The Owl Pages and National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Last Chance to Enter Our Photo Contest!

Barbara J. Fleming of Colorado Springs, Colorado, took the above photo of a male snowy owl hovering over a field near her home—winning second place in the Amateur Birds category of last year’s National Wildlife photo contest. Why not enter your best shots this year in the 41st annual National Wildlife Photo Contest? Winners in seven categories will appear in National Wildlife magazine alongside images taken by some of the world’s top nature photographers. The deadline to enter is July 14th!

View a slide show of owl species from around the world: Each image is an entry in the photo contest!