Skyrocketing demand for pet owls in southeast Asia putting species at risk

Owls have become increasingly popular to keep as pets.
Owls have become increasingly popular to keep as pets. Photo credit: Getty

Harry Potter loved his owl, and so do his fans - so much they're putting several species of the nocturnal bird at risk.

Owls have become a must-have pet for fans of the fictional boy wizard. A recent study found thousands of them for sale in markets in southeast Asia - particularly Indonesia, where they're now known as 'Burung Harry Potter', which literally translates as 'Harry Potter birds'.

Before JK Rowling published the first Harry Potter novel in the late 1990s, they were rare - making up only 0.06 percent of the bird market in the sprawling nation.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter with his owl, Hedwig, around the time of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter with his owl, Hedwig, around the time of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Photo credit: Warner Bros

The problem is, the vast majority are taken from the wild, and aren't used to life in cages. Many die soon after they're purchased, but at prices as low as $10, demand is only growing.

"Over half of the owls for sale were not yet adult, with significant numbers apparently being young taken from their nests," the study, published in journal Global Ecology and Conservation, reads.

"At the end of 2016 we identified at least 15 dedicated Facebook groups, with over 35,000 members, six websites, four blogs, one Instagram and two twitter accounts. Pet owl interest groups are present in Jakarta, Malang, Surakarta, Surabaya, Sitoardjo, amongst others, and members meet up in city centres, especially on car-free Sundays, displaying their pet owls and exchanging information."

The researchers say many varieties of owl are now under threat.

"The rise in popularity of keeping owls as pets, and the associated rise of the number of pet owl interest groups, organising themselves on social media, suggests the types of people who now want owls as a pet - and have the means to acquire one - have increased and diversified.

"While what we observed in the bird markets is probably just the proverbial tip of the iceberg."

Owls in cages in southeast Asian markets.
Owls in cages in southeast Asian markets. Photo credit: Global Ecology and Conservation

They admit the link between Harry Potter and the popularity of owls is only circumstantial, but say the fact they're called 'Harry Potter birds' is pretty strong evidence.

JK Rowling saw this coming a long time ago. As early as 2001, when the first book was turned into a movie, she said owls in reality aren't like the ones in her books.

"If anybody has been influenced by my books to think 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, 'you are wrong'," she said.

"The owls in Harry Potter books were never intended to portray the true behaviour or preferences of real owls."

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