The ‘Harry Potter effect’ on the Indonesian owl trade

Thursday, 29 June 2017

single buffy fish owl in jakarta bird market

Researchers at Oxford Brookes University have investigated whether or not there is a ‘Harry Potter effect’ on owl keeping in countries where keeping wild birds as pets is considered commonplace.

This week marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published. In the years following the release of Harry Potter novels, there have been some suggestions that countries like the UK and India have seen an increase in owl keeping. JK Rowling has previously spoken out against keeping owls as pets stating: “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 say as forcefully as I can, you are wrong.”

In the recently published study, Professors Vincent Nijman and Anna Nekaris at Oxford Brookes University turned their attention to Indonesia, where a wide range of species can be bought at bird markets in most major cities. 

By comparing data from market surveys from 1979 to 2016, thus including the period before and after the release of the Harry Potter novels, the researchers were able to show that there has been an increase in the owl trade. Furthermore, they have highlighted that where owls used to be called Burung hantu, which translates as ghost birds, now they are referred to as Burung Harry Potter (Harry Potter birds). 

What we have seen in Indonesia is a massive increase in popularity of owls in general and pet owl lovers organise themselves on social media to exchange information on how to keep owls, what owls are available as pets, and where to obtain them.

Prof Vincent Nijman, Professor in Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University

Professor Nijman said: “In the 1990s, when surveying the bird markets I would typically see one or two owls for sale amongst the thousands of wild-caught birds on offer but equally often not a single owl was on display.

“Now, returning to those same markets we can see dozens of owls for sale of a wide range of species and owls are always present, all taken from the wild.”

While at least in Indonesia, Harry Potter may have had some effect on the normalization of keeping owls as pets, blaming the increase of the owls trade solely on the little wizard or its creator paints too simplistic a picture. “What we have seen in Indonesia is a massive increase in popularity of owls in general and pet owl lovers organise themselves on social media to exchange information on how to keep owls, what owls are available as pets, and where to obtain them”, added Prof Nijman. 

“Only a year prior to the publication of Harry Potter the first public Internet café opened in Indonesia and the increase in use of social media coincided with the rise of Harry Potter as a phenomenon.” 

Professor Anna Nekaris said: "It is particularly heart breaking to see nocturnal animals like owls in the markets. Looking stunned and stressed under the bright sun, they are often only fed water and rice, making the situation all the more pitiful.

“About half of the 2,000 or so owls we encountered in the markets were downy chicks, taken from their nests, and we expect the majority of them to die within weeks; this does not appear to be a sustainable trade.”

With limited information available on the status of wild owls in Indonesia it is difficult to gauge the effect of the increase of owl trade. “Few researchers venture out at night making it possible that the trade affects some species very negatively without us knowing” added Prof Nekaris. 

Eight species of owl in Indonesia are listed a globally threatened, and with traders offering a wide range of species, these are the ones that need to be monitored to ensure the unsustainable trade is not an impediment to their conservation.

The paper, entitled The Harry Potter effect: The rise in trade of owls as pets in Java, Bali and Indonesia, is published in the open access journal Global Ecology and Conservation and can be found online.

Photograph: Single buffy fish owl in a market in Jakarta. Credit: Andrew Walmsley (www.andrewwalmsleyphotography.com)