"Professor McGonagowl" and
Archimedes, an Eastern Screech-Owl. This species is related to Ron's owl Pigwidgeon, a Eurasian
Scops Owl. Pigwidgeon belongs to the genus Otus
. Archimedes belongs to Megascops.
Old bird books have them both belonging to Otus
, but VERY old bird books have them the way they are now. One big difference is in their calls. You can hear an Eastern Screech-Owl here
and a Eurasian Scops-Owl here
. (Thanks, Bruce!)
By Laura Erickson(a.k.a. "Professor
(SPOILER discussion of Hedwig in Book 7--Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--is here.)
No spoilers beyond this point:
Now that five Harry Potter movies and all seven
books have been released, people have become very familiar
with owls. This website will give you facts about owls both
in the real world and in J.K. Rowling's magical world. I live
in the United States, but Harry Potter lives in England. Some
owls live in both places, and some are found on only one side
of the pond. I've studied owls for a long time and read all
seven Harry Potter books and seen the movies, but I simply couldn't
have written this and made it authoritative without a lot of
help from a lot of people. If you have information I should
add, corrections, or other comments, please email
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. One Snowy
Owl named Hedwig also provides warm companionship when a lonely
wizard named Harry needs it.
If you have questions about owls, first look
to see if you can find the answers here. If not, you can email
Professor McGonagowl. As always, if you have questions,
comments, or corrections, please let me know. To get more information,
Harry and Hedwig. Notice that Hedwig is being played
by a male. Harry is wearing a wool glove. But underneath
the cloak, he is wearing leather arm protection.
Harry's owl Hedwig is a Snowy
Owl. She's a female but, in the movie, the actors playing
her are males. (One of the owls playing Hedwig was also the
very first cast member to be chosen!!) You can tell that
the owl playing Hedwig in the photo is really a male because
his plumage is so white--female Snowy Owls have dark markings.
Females are also bigger and heavier, and so would be a little
harder for human actors to handle. Healthy males average
about 4 pounds, females almost 4 1/2 pounds. They have powerful
talons. You can't see in the photo that Daniel Radcliffe
is wearing thick leather protection on his arm. Claws that
can kill a large duck through thick feathers can be pretty
hard on human arms, too, even when the owl is just trying
to balance itself.
Seven different owls played the role of Hedwig. Their names
are Gizmo, Kasper, Oops, Swoops, Oh Oh, Elmo and Bandit. I
found out some interesting things on The
Pet Place site about Harry Potter.
Real Snowy Owls live in the arctic tundra, in North America,
Europe, and Asia. A few breed in the northern British Isles.
Long ago, when the Arctic climate extended farther south than
now, Snowy Owls lived much farther south. Cave art by Paleolithic
people of Europe includes an etched outline of two Snowy Owls
and their chicks on a cave wall in Ariege, France. This particular
prehistoric drawing happens to make the Snowy Owl the first
recognizeable bird species to be depicted in art anywhere in
Snowy Owls are predators, and eat only animals, never plants.
Their main prey species is the lemming, a fierce little rodent
smaller than a chipmunk. Lemmings have enormous population
fluctuations from one year to the next. When lemmings are abundant,
Snowy Owls may eat hardly anything else. They usually swallow
each lemming whole, head first, but if they're not too hungry,
they sometimes bite off just the head, or even eat parts in
small bits. But when lemming numbers are down, Snowy Owls eat
a lot of other things. Depending on where they live, they may
eat a lot of snowshoe hares, grebes and ducks (especially Horned
Grebes), ptarmigans, ground squirrels, rats, partridge, and
even fish. When a Snowy Owl's face gets gooped up with blood
and guts, it sometimes cleans up by wiping its face in the
snow. I have a couple of photos of wild Snowy Owls on my Snowy
Owl Bird Photo Gallery.
Global warming is expected to hurt Snowy Owls over much of
their range. Hedwig is lucky she lives in a magical world!
Real Great Gray Owls aren't clumsy!
The Weasley family has a very clumsy owl named Errol. In the
movies he's a Great
Gray Owl. I don't think his species is actually mentioned
in the books, but my friend Katty from Belgium found that he
IS called a Great Gray Owl on J.K.Rowling's Web site. Measured
from head to tail, the Great Gray Owl is the biggest owl in
the world. But even though they're an inch or so longer than
Snowy Owls and look just as big, they weigh much less than
Snowy Owls--sometimes less than half! Also, their wingspan
isn't as long as that of Snowy Owls, probably because their
wings don't carry nearly as much weight. Great Gray Owls specialize
on mice and voles, and have very thin toes compared to other
In North America, wild Great Gray Owls live in Alaska and
much of Canada down to northeastern Minnesota, and down into
the mountainous areas of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho,
Montana, and Wyoming. In Europe and Asia, they are found in
northern Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, northern Mongolia, Northern
Manchuria, Amurland, and Sakhalin. They make it to Great Britain
only in the magical world of Harry Potter.
Real Great Gray Owls cannot carry very heavy items because
they themselves are so light (usually less than 3 pounds!),
and their feet are fairly weak. When I was taking care of injured
birds, I once had to go rescue a Great Gray Owl that I then
transferred to a raptor specialist. I had it for a little while,
and was amazed at how innocuous its feet were. I normally took
care of songbirds, so didn't have the heavy gloves normally
worn when doing raptor work, but this owl's talons didn't hurt
my bare hands at all. Normally over 90% of a Great Gray Owl's
diet is one species--meadow voles. When they eat larger prey,
such as rabbits and squirrels, they must sit on the animal
for many hours, biting off small chunks of meat.
The Weasley's Great Gray Owl, Errol, is very clumsy. Real
owls simply cannot crash the way Errol does in the movie. Not
even the owl actor who plays Errol could really crash like
that--like other birds, owls have hollow bones and are much
too fragile to slam into tables and windows. In the movie,
they filmed a real Great Gray Owl flying gracefully through
the Errol scenes. Then they substituted a dummy owl for the
You can see many photos of wild Great Gray Owls at my Great
Gray Owl Bird Photo Gallery.
This is a wild Great Gray Owl. Notice how it can sit
comfortably on a very thin branch.
This Great Gray Owl's talons are not hurting my hand.
I helped this bird when I was a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
The Little Owl of Eurasia is related to the Burrowing
Owl of North America. But they are different species.
Pigwidgeon is so minute that some people have suggested to
me that he might be a Little
Owl, one very small owl found in England. This owl's scientific
name is Athene noctua, and it is fairly common in
much of its range, in southern and central Europe and Asia,
and northern Africa. Little Owls aren't native to England,
but were introduced there in the late 1800s. Little Owls are
not found anywhere naturally in North America, but they are
in the same genus, and closely related to, the Burrowing Owl.
Like the Burrowing Owl, the Little Owl is found in open habitats,
and is often active in the daytime as well as the night. The
Little Owl often perches on posts and other look-outs. Like
most tiny owls, the Little Owl eats many insects, which it
can catch on the wing.
The Little Owl does have some interesting mythology of its
own, being the sacred owl of the goddess Athene--that's how
it got its scientific name. And it is shown on coins from ancient
But according to J.K.
Rowling's own website, and supported by Mary
Grandpre's lovely illustration in Chapter 22
of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,
Pigwidgeon is a Eurasian
(Common) Scops Owl. This owl, even tinier than a Little
Owl and more closely related to the Screech Owls of America,
has "ear tufts"--feathers that stick up on the
head and look like ears. The owl illustration for this chapter
clearly shows those feather tufts.
We hope the moviemakers use a scops owl when Pigwidgeon finally
appears--he wasn't in the third or fourth movies at all, which
has been a big disappointment to me and many others!
A real Scops Owl.
Ron seemed resentful to have such a tiny animal compared to
Harry's Hedwig. But we bet he didn't have to work nearly as
hard to clean up after Pigwidgeon as Harry did for Hedwig!
Owl poop is smelly and messy. (Unless they're magical owls--we
notice that Harry's black cloak never has a single white spot
I wonder if this Eagle Owl on the Privet Drive sign is
Malfoy's owl is the largest, heaviest
owl in Europe, an Eagle Owl. Eagle Owls are not found in
the United States--they live in Europe and Asia. Eagle Owls
are not native to Great Britain, but a few pairs have escaped
captivity. Scientists hope they don't become established
in the wild in England because like all introduced animals,
they will almost assuredly disturb the balance of nature
already there. But in their native range these magnificent
birds are an important part of that balance. Eagle Owls have
oranger eyes than Great Horned Owls, are slightly larger,
and have heavy, vertical streaks on the front, rather than
the finer, horizontal barring of the Great Horned Owl. Again,
notice how it perches with the two normal front toes facing
forward. (The "thumb" toe and the back toe
Percy's Screech Owl
Archimedes, my own education Screech-Owl
I didn't pay enough attention to another owl--Percy's! Fortunately,
my friend Katty writes:
In the Harry Potter Lexicon about owls, they mentioned
a screech owl. And in chapter 5 of Prisoner
of Azkaban, you can find: "...Percy's screech
owl, ..." (when Rowling described the Weasleys,
Hermione and Harry leaving the Leaky Cauldron.)
Considering that my very own owl, Archimedes, is
a screech owl, I really should have found this on
Other Owls Appearing
Here and There
Poster for the very first Harry Potter movie. Great Horned
Owls are not found naturally in England.
Throughout the Harry Potter movies, there are lots of owls
here and there.
The owl shown in many of the posters, screensaver, and other
promotional material for the movie, Harry Potter
and the Sorcerer's Stone, is a Great Horned Owl.
This owl lives in North, Central, and South America, but is
not found in the wild in England or any other place on that
side of the Atlantic Ocean. I don't know if this promotional
material was used in England, but it makes a lot of sense for
an American owl to deliver invitations to the movie to people
in Canada and the U.S. Notice that the owl has two front claws
on each foot facing forward. Owls have three front toes and
one back toe on each foot. But one of the front claws is opposable,
and rotates backward the way we use our thumb. So the way this
owl is carrying the letter to Harry is, indeed, exactly the
way a real owl would carry mail. Notice that owls prefer air
Real owls wouldn't be comfortable being so close to so
many other owls. This scene was made using special filming
In real life, large species of owls sometimes eat smaller
species. Real owls are extremely stressed by being near other
owls. But filming the scene on the left did not stress the
owls. Why? This scene was filmed over and over, with different
owls each time, and then the films were digitally manipulated
to make it appear that all the owls were there together at
the same time.
This Great Gray Owl in Diagon Alley helped make the atmosphere
seem magical. From this angle, its eyes look very dark,
but when the camera moved, you could see they are yellow.
Notes about the fourth movie:
My friend Katty from Belgium, who is blind so notices a great
many sounds I don't pay enough attention to, writes:
Yesterday, I saw the fourth film and was lucky to hear different
owl sounds. In this movie, we entered the owlery (not a circular
stone room as described in the books, but it seemed to be
located outside the school). I don't know if you can see
much of the owl species during this scene, but I heard the
- little owl
- barn owl (maybe)
- eagle owl
- snowy owl
- ???other species I didn't recognise. They seemed to be
very active, But I don't know if it is evening or day in
During the film, you can hear other owl species, but I
don't know if you can see them. I heard:
- little owl (on the graveyard
- tawney owl
- ??barn owl
The only species (and owl character) I didn't see or hear
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there REALLY a broom in that bag?
Could a real owl really carry a Nimbus 2000? I
weighed one corn broom as 0.6 kilograms. Snowy Owl often kill
snowshoe hares and can carry them to their nestlings. A snowshoe
hare weighs over 1 kilogram, so the weight of a real broom
wouldn't be a problem for a Snowy Owl. And a Snowy Owl's talons
can easily grip a broom handle. So yes, a real Snowy Owl could
really carry a Nimbus 2000. But the Snowy Owl in this scene
simply flew through, and then the filmmakers digitally added
the broom. This wasn't too hard to do. In the arctic tundra,
where there are no trees for Snowy Owls to bonk into in flight,
they often dangle their legs in flight. So in this scene, the
real owl's legs are already in position to be carrying something.
Tiny owls can easily carry mice, so letters and birthday greetings
would be quite easy for them to manage. But according to The
Pet Place, "Although throughout the movie, it appears
the owls carry messages and even the broom, they didn’t
actually hold the objects. Instead, they were attached to the
birds using an invisible harness. When they reached the right
point, a trainer pulled a cord, which released the message
or object." Also, notice that the broom that was delivered
in the movie was really made out of paper.
Can real owls be happy in cages? The cage
Harry often keeps Hedwig in is way too small for any real owl,
and the tiny Victorian cage used in the movie would be illegal
to keep an owl in in either the U.S. or Great Britain. Great
Britain requires all bird cages to be big enough to allow the
bird to stretch its wings fully without touching anything.
To keep it in anything smaller requires a veterinary certificate.
But the owl playing Hedwig is probably used to a fairly small
cage when he goes places, the way dogs or cats get used to
a small pet carrier or kennel, as long as they don't need to
stay in it too long or too often.
Are real owls ever active in the daytime?
Owls that live in the Arctic, "the land of the midnight sun," obviously
have to be able to hunt in bright conditions. Snowy Owls can hunt by day or
night. And some other owls are very diurnal--the Northern Hawk-Owl and the
more tropical Pygmy-Owls are active in the daytime. Many owls are crepuscular--most
active at twilight. And some are active ONLY at night--the tiny Saw-whet Owl
and Boreal Owl are good examples.
My Eastern Screech-Owl, Archimedes. I have to have state
and federal licenses in order to keep him as an education
owl. Screech owls are in the same genus as scops owls,
My own little owl, Archimedes,
reminds me of a cat. He's active when he feels like it and
sleeps when he feels like it, day or night. Screech Owls roost
and nest in tree cavities or nest boxes, and are very vulnerable
to jays, robins,and crows in the daytime, but they need some
sunshine to produce Vitamin D, so they spend much of the day
with their head poking out of the hole. If a cranky robin or
jay spots one, the little owl just retreats back into the cavity.
Can people really have owls for pets? In
the magical world of Harry Potter, a wizard or witch can own
a real owl. In the real world, in England, people are allowed
to keep owls provided the bird can be shown to be captive bred
or found disabled and unable to be returned to the wild--in
order to show owls for money or to breed them for sale, people
in the U.K. need to have what is known as an "Article
10 certificate," which functions much as a licence for
In the U.S., keeping owls for pets is always against the law. In the U.S.,
owls and all other native birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty
Act, and cannot be possessed by anyone who doesn't have legal permits for research
or education, or in the case of an injured owl, legal rehabilitation permits.
I have permits to keep one Eastern Screech-Owl for
education. I first needed to prove that I have a good reason to use an owl
for educational programs, and that I could provide healthy, safe, and comfortable
housing and good food, in order to apply for a permit from the Minnesota Department
of Natural Resources. I needed a permit from my state in order to apply for
a federal permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After I had both
permits, I was allowed to keep one screech owl, but wasn't allowed to take
it from the wild. I had to find a rehabilitation center that had an owl that
had recovered but couldn't be released into the wild.
How can I see a real, live owl in the wild?
Owls are secretive in the daytime, because they are
often attacked by crows, ravens, jays, robins, and other birds.
If you're walking in the woods or in a park and hear what sounds
like exceptionally angry chickadees, or a large number of extremely
loud crows, check it out! They may be mobbing an owl. At nighttime
you can listen for owls, especially in late winter and spring.
To hear how some owls sound, you can look at Journey
North's owl dictionary.
Find out if your town or city has an Audubon society or other
bird club. Most bird clubs have field trips, and will have
experts along to help you see all the birds. And they might
have some special trips just to find owls!
How can I help owls?
There are several things we can do to help owls.
- Buy your Harry Potter books from the Canadian
publisher, Raincoast. This company prints all the Harry
Potter books on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. This
helps many kinds of owls because so much owl habitat is
cut down to make paper.
- Don't waste paper. Recycle
paper when you're done with it, and buy recycled paper. How
does this help owls? On average, Americans consume 738 pounds
of paper per person per year. And much of this paper is wasted--over
40% of the trash Americans throw away is paper. That adds
up to a lot of trees! And when forests are cut to make paper,
it hurts the birds that require older forest growth. One
way you can save paper is to stop getting junk mail. Four
million TONS of junk mail is sent through the U.S. Postal
Service, and half is never even opened. That is an enormous
waste of forests. This
website has information about simple things you can do
to get less junk mail.
- Keep your cat indoors. House
cats kill millions of birds every year. Rarely, a Great Horned
Owls kills a cat, but since even the heaviest owl weighs
only 4 - 5 pounds, owls are at a serious disadvantage when
in a fight with a cat. Even if an owl survives an attack,
a cat bite or scratch can introduce bacteria leading to lethal
infections. Bird lungs are on the back, making them especially
vulnerable to puncture wounds. Also, cats kill a lot of mice.
Except in very urban areas where rats and mice are a problem
for humans, house cats destroy a lot of valuable owl food,
making it harder for owls, especially smaller species, to
survive. To learn more about the importance of keeping your
cat indoors, see the American
Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors campaign page.
- Don't let your dog chase
birds. When an owl kills a large prey
animal, it sometimes spends several minutes on the ground
eating. During this time, it can easily be killed or
badly injured by a dog. We know of at least one screech
owl that was grabbed by a dog, and the tiny owl's wing
was broken. If people had not noticed, it would have
died, but now it's in a rehab facility.
- Leave dead trees standing.
If they absolutely must be cut, then to do it in the late
fall/early winter to ensure no babies are in the nest.
- Put up a Wood Duck/Screech
Owl box or a Barred Owl nest platform. It's
not a good idea to build both kinds close to one another,
- Support an owl rehabilitation
center near you. In Minnesota, The
Raptor Center does a great job of caring for injured
and orphaned raptors. This
page lists many other rehabilitation facilities.
If you know of a place that is not listed, please email
- Join an organization that
works to protect owls. My favorite American
organization that does research and education to help
all birds is the American
Bird Conservancy. The Rainforest
Alliance protects tropical birds, including the many
owls that live there. The Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds protects birds
of the world with special emphasis on the United Kingdom.
- Don't even think about having
an owl for a pet. Owls are protected
by law, so it's illegal to keep them in captivity in
the U.S. without a license. But at least as important,
owls are wild, natural birds requiring a wild, natural
life. In cages they simply cannot do all the things their
bodies were designed for and their spirits require. Also,
owls are not at all easy to care for: they need to eat
whole rodents or other whole animals, which must be fresh,
and their droppings are messy and smelly, requiring frequent
clean-up. If you yearn to handle real, live owls, volunteer
to help at a nature center or rehabilitation center.
- If you're buying owl stuff,
buy them from Owl Stuff. Proceeds from
t he Owl Stuff website
go to conservation organizations.