The immensely popular Harry Potter films (and books) have taken their toll on owls. In the series, owls are children's pets and the postal service. Harry Potter's snowy owl, Hedwig, has a fan base of her own and is depicted as a clever, loving animal. This week, India's minister of the environment blamed Potter's popularity for boosting the illegal bird market in his country. "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. Ramesh isn't the only one noticing the trend: in the UK, there is now a shelter for the owls dumped by owners when the magic of caring for a large raptor wore off. Shelter operator Don Walser told the Telegraph that he is rehabilitating owls from all over England, and is particularly dismayed by "a pair of snowy owls that were left in a garden by their owners for three days without food. They would have died. It was disgusting."
Harry Potter inspired one ornithologist to do a comprehensive study of the owl trade in India. His report, out this week from the wildlife conservation group Traffic, describes a situation in which the author was asked to procure an owl by a friend's wife. "This was probably one of the strangest demands made to me as an ornithologist," author Abrar Ahmed wrote. The wife of a friend wanted live, white-colored owls for her 9-year-old son's Harry Potter-themed birthday party. "Please ask someone to capture and bring the owl to us," she asked Ahmed. "We can pay the cost." The woman was seemingly unaware of the penalties for trafficking wildlife, but was persistent. In the end, Ahmed didn't bring live owls, but instead drew pictures of snow owls and hung them around the party venue. Later in the night, he was able to show children a real live owl when one happened to land near the gate of the venue. It wasn't a snowy owl like Hedwig, it was a Spotted Owlet, but it was real and the children could see it without participating (albeit unknowingly) in illegal wildlife trafficking. After the party, several guests joined local birdwatching groups.