Q: Why did you choose the owl as the animal messenger in your books?
A. Because owls are traditionally associated with magic, and I like them.
-- J.K. Rowling (Sch2)
"Don't count your owls before they are delivered."
-- Albus Dumbledore (HBP4)
Owls in the wizarding world are regarded both as pets and as the primary method of communication. They are of course used to deliver letters and packages as part of owl post service, but to wizards they mean more than just that. On many occasions Harry thinks of Hedwig as a friend, especially when the two of them are locked into number four, Privet Drive together (OP3). Owning an owl is also something of a status symbol and owls reflect their owners’ wealth; the Weasleys’ owl, Errol, is old and frequently collapses at the ends of journeys (PA1) while the Malfoys have an enormous, handsome eagle owl (PS8) that not even the post office is mentioned as having (PA14).
Wizarding owls have some magical powers (JKR) and are generally very intelligent. It is clear they understand instructions in English, and they even seem to be able to read – generally wizards have only to write the name of the recipient on an envelope for owls to understand where to take it, and when Harry writes his first letter to Snuffles he explains to Hedwig that he means Sirius (OP14). They also know who their deliveries are to and where they’ll be, like the school owl that waits for Harry in his dormitory (GF18) and the owl that delivers a Daily Prophet and knows to ruffle through Hagrid’s coat pockets for payment (PS5). Owls can also be instructed to wait for the recipient to send back an immediate response (HBP3). They’re not quite perfect, though, evidenced when one owl flies into a closed window despite two others figuring it out and coming down the chimney instead (OP2). Owl post is not the most secure form of communication–owls can be intercepted so wizards must be careful what they write in letters (OP14) and packages can be checked for contraband (HBP11).
Owls’ behaviors are on a basic level very similar to that of Muggle owls, sleeping during the day (GF15) and hunting at daybreak (GF29) for mice, voles (GF15), and frogs (OP3) (though they definitely won’t say no to an occasional owl treat (GF5) ). Their emotions, however, can be very human. At varying times we’ve seen owls work hard to look dignified and important (PA1), fly around in celebration of Voldemort’s downfall (PS1), carry a fellow owl when he’s passed out (PA1), and fly urgent messages at top speed (OP2). We also see Hedwig get upset with Harry for a variety of reasons, and stay mad for quite some time (CS7,GF18) – though she’s also known to be affectionate (PS8).
- Hedwig - Harry's snowy owl, amber eyes, unusually intelligent
- Errol - Weasley family's owl, old and decrepit
- Hermes - Percy's screech owl
- Pigwidgeon - Ron's Scops owl (GF2, JKR) tiny, over-exuberant
- Hogwarts school owls - various owls which can be used by students to send mail
- the Malfoys' eagle owl (PS9)
- the Lovegoods' hawk-like owl (DH20)
- Augusta Longbottom's barn owl (PS9, PA14) and her tawny owl (GF13)
Information about real-world owls can be found at Owls of the World.
Information about the symbolism associated with owls can be found here.
The Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts must have a system for sending out mass owl post without the owls being spotted, but we don't know what that system is. Hogwarts sends its beginning-of-the-year letters and its exam results letters all on the same day (CS4) (OP9) (HBP5) (HBP6). The Ministry sent out safety leaflets to everyone during the war (HBP4).
From Rowling's website in June 2011: "There has been a spate of stories in the press recently concerning the upswing in popularity of keeping owls as pets, allegedly as a result of the Harry Potter books. If it is true that anybody has been influenced by my books to think that 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: please don’t" (JKR).
Because the word "scops" was mistranslated in the Mainland Chinese versions of the books, readers thought that Erroll recited poetry! Read more here.