Monday, June 26, 2017 - 10:15
Olivia Trani, Contributor
(Inside Science) -- In the wizarding world of Harry Potter, owls are magical companions that deliver the post. But in Indonesia, wild owls are stolen from their nests and put in cages in pet markets next to hundreds of winged neighbors. Before J.K. Rowling wrote about Harry’s snowy owl Hedwig, Indonesians rarely kept owls as pets. Now various kinds of local owls are staples in pet markets. Vincent Nijman and Anne-Isola Nekaris from the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group in the U.K. believe this attention toward owls may be partially linked to the “Harry Potter” series, and they fear the new demand rewards an environmentally destructive pet industry.
Bird keeping is a popular pastime in Indonesia. While only 3 percent of American households own birds, roughly 20 percent of urban Indonesian households have feathered pets. A survey estimates that 2.6 million birds are acquired each year. Birds are especially popular in Java and Bali, two southern Indonesian islands, and the larger markets there hold more than 16,000 birds on a given day.
Birds also have special meaning in Indonesian culture: A Javan proverb claims that a fulfilled man must acquire a house, a wife, a horse, a dagger and a bird. In the saying, the bird symbolizes the importance of maintaining a hobby.
Vincent Nijman, an anthropology professor at Oxford Brookes University who holds a doctorate degree in ecology and conservation biology, has studied Indonesian bird markets for more than 20 years. Before the 2000s, he would spot one to two owls, if any, in these shops. Now they’ve become a constant.
“Often we see dozens of them -- up to 30, 40, 50 owls,” said Nijman. The most common owls in these markets belong to several similar species called scops owls, which are the smallest and cheapest owls available. In 2016, TRAFFIC, an organization dedicated to monitoring wildlife trade, found that the Sunda scops owl was particularly popular among bird keepers. This type isn’t considered to be threatened, but some of its 15 Indonesian scops relatives, like the Javan and Siau scops owls, are vulnerable to extinction.
Owls for sale are typically called “Burung Hantu,” which means “ghost bird.” Now Nijman claims the birds are just as often referred to as “Burung Harry Potter.”