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Sweeping silently through the pages of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and the hit movies are owls. They act as messengers and muses for the young wizards. The stories feature many different species of different sizes and temperaments.

Harry's magnificent Hedwig is a Snowy Owl, a species from the far north. Other owls seen in the movies and mentioned in the books include Eagle-Owls and Tawny Owls. North American species featured include Barn, Great Horned, Short-eared, and Great Gray owls.

So why owls? Why not falcons? Or hawks and eagles? Or ravens? Or doves? Or any of the other 186 families of birds?

In Greek and Roman mythology, the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena or Minerva, was symbolized by an owl. The creature's keen ability to see through darkness, obscurity, and symbolic ignorance, made it synonymous with education and intellect. These traits have sparked people's interest in owls for thousands of years. Owls are often used in the insignia of libraries, publishing houses, and bookstores. Owls that are nocturnal--active at night--are rarely seen by humans. This, along with their other qualities--their distinctive calls and hoots, their silent flight--make them seem magical, difficult to know, and perhaps even a bit scary. Some cultures have associated owls with death and the unknown. Therefore, owls make the perfect companions for young wizards.

Like other birds of prey, such as hawks, owls feed on rodents, which makes them helpful to humans. We associate them with excellent vision and hearing, since many owls are active primarily at night. Also, because of their nocturnal habits, they are rarely seen by humans and are thought of as mysterious.

In the real world of science and nature, these same traits make owls extraordinarily interesting. Their remarkable ability to see, hear, and hunt prey are the results of senses far superior to ours. Soft, fluffy, fringed feathers keep them warm in the coldest of climates. Some owls have adapted to humans and their altered habitats while others live in the most remote wildernesses. Occasionally, circumstances arise that bring these owls from the wild closer to humans. If an owl's main food source is in short supply, it will wander in search of prey animals.

Harry Potter's owl Hedwig might seem like the perfect pet for a wizard, but real owls are best appreciated in the wild. Although it might be fun to imagine having a pet owl, in fact, it is illegal to keep owls, or any migratory bird, in captivity without a special rehabilitation or research license. This is for the owls' own good--they belong in the wild! You may be able to entice owls, such as Barn Owls and screech-owls, to come nest in your yard if you live in areas inhabited by these species. For information on how to set up nest boxes, visit The Birdhouse Network.

This article was originally published on the web site of the Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.