38

Harry, before the Triwizard Tournament, was able to send owls to Sirius when he was in hiding (not at Grimmauld Place) just by telling them "just find him, will you?", and the owl would come back a few days later with an answer. This doesn't happen with Hedwig only, because, if I recall correctly, he uses school owls as well.

If finding Sirius was as easy as telling an owl "find him", and a 13-year-old wizard could do it, how come the Ministry had no clue as to where he was? They could've sent an owl with a summons and followed it from a distance.

Two theories, neither mentioned in the book, and both a bit unlikely:

  • He was living as a dog and -hopefully- the Ministry would not be able to recognize him. Unlikely because the owl would have got there anyway, so they would have guessed the dog was Sirius in disguise, not necessarily as an animagus, but maybe he could perform human-animal transfiguration (remember he was brilliant at school)..
  • Kingsley Shacklebolt was already in charge of the hunt and Dumbledore told him Sirius was innocent and all that. Then, Kingsley would have prevented the Ministry from using any method that could've actually worked. Unlikely because they could've used owls before Dumbledore's tip, when Kingsley didn't know Sirius was innocent, and also because Kingsley was quite powerful and had the support of Crouch and others at the Ministry, so if he was in charge, they would probably have succeeded.

Your thoughts?

  • 4
    Non-canonical of course, but I always assumed that the owl's delivery magic would naturally contain built-in protections against that sort of misuse. (Similarly, remember that the Ministry couldn't keep the Trace on Harry after his 17th birthday? Some sorts of magic only work when used in the way for which they were originally intended.) – Harry Johnston Jul 27 '14 at 22:03
43

J.K. Rowling's Official Web Site FAQs, #18 states:

Q: In 'Prisoner of Azkaban', why couldn't the Ministry of Magic have sent Sirius an owl, and then followed it, to find him?

A: Just as wizards can make buildings unplottable, they can also make themselves untraceable. Voldemort would have been found long ago if it had been as simple as sending him an owl!

  • 6
    And yet...the owl DID find Sirius, so he wasn't made untraceable...unless ALL owls are untraceable, so that mail delivery is secure. – Jeff Feb 22 '12 at 15:45
  • 1
    People can find unplottable buildings (Hogwarts), doesn't make them NOT unplottable, just means you can't follow beings that can find it – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 22 '12 at 15:59
  • 5
    I would imagine Sirius just made himself untraceable to everyone except Harry. – Mark Beadles Feb 22 '12 at 17:10
  • 1
    @Janoma - Hedwig was presumably attacked in Hogwarts, by Filch and/or Dolores. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 22 '12 at 17:13
  • 3
    @Iszi - edited. And I'm just the messenger, you need to downvote JKR :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 26 '12 at 12:49
13

To add to the above answer by DVK (since it is too long for a comment), owl posts were suspected to be intercepted only after "The Parting of the Ways", when the Ministry under Fudge started a smear campaign against Dumbledore and his supporters. And by that time, Dumbledore had revived the Order of the Phoenix and Kingsley, who was in charge of Sirius' case, had been alerted to his side, which was why he and Tonks were seen covertly misinforming the Ministry on Sirius' whereabouts: Arthur Weasley says in the Order of the Phoenix :

We've managed to convince a couple of people, though. Tonks here, for one — she's too young to have been in the Order of the Phoenix last time, and having Aurors on our side is a huge advantage — Kingsley Shacklebolt's been a real asset, too; he's in charge of the hunt for Sirius, so he's been feeding the Ministry information that Sirius is in Tibet."

During the previous two years when Sirius was on the run, nobody in the Ministry had any reason to suspect that he had any correspondent in Hogwarts or elsewhere, and least of all, Harry and Dumbledore. His presumed master, Voldemort was not on the scene, and his other family members are in Azkaban, while all other former Death Eaters like Malfoy had "converted", in the eyes of the ministry.

Thus, if wizards can make themselves untraceable while allowing for exceptions, the Ministry could not have traced Sirius using owls, and interjecting the allowed exceptions did not happen, for the reasons given above.

5

This question is essentially asked in the books themselves, though about a different character. In the beginning of Half-Blood Prince we find the following conversation between Slughorn and Harry:

“All ex-students, all signed. You’ll notice Barnabas Cuffe, editor of the Daily Prophet, he’s always interested to hear my take on the day’s news. And Ambrosius Flume, of Honeydukes — a hamper every birthday, and all because I was able to give him an introduction to Ciceron Harkiss, who gave him his first job! And at the back — you’ll see her if you just crane your neck — that’s Gwenog Jones, who of course captains the Holyhead Harpies. ... People are always astonished to hear I’m on first-name terms with the Harpies, and free tickets whenever I want them!”

This thought seemed to cheer him up enormously.

“And all these people know where to find you, to send you stuff?” asked Harry, who could not help wondering why the Death Eaters had not yet tracked down Slughorn if hampers of sweets, Quidditch tickets, and visitors craving his advice and opinions could find him.

The smile slid from Slughorn ’s face as quickly as the blood from his walls.

“Of course not,” he said, looking down at Harry. “I have been out of touch with everybody for a year.”

Here Harry is asking why Slughorn couldn't be tracked if people are sending him all sorts of stuff all the time. Slughorn's answer is that people have not been sending him stuff. This response shows that if people had indeed been sending him stuff then others would have been able to track him (i.e. owls can be followed).

This response also indicates that there must be something one can do to prevent owls from finding him. Slughorn was able to ensure that none of his students nor any Death Eaters would be able to send him things. We don't know what this prevention method is (a spell, or something else) but it apparently works (although Dumbledore managed to find him, but hey he's Dumbledore.)

Finally, this also shows that the method of prevention is either all or nothing. If Slughorn was able to only prevent certain people from tracking him (like Death Eaters) he surely would have allowed his former students to continue sending him gifts.

Another potential indication that owls can be tracked comes from Goblet of Fire:

Harry pulled off Sirius’s reply and offered Hedwig his bacon rinds, which she ate gratefully. Then, checking that Fred and George were safely immersed in further discussions about the Tri-wizard Tournament, Harry read out Sirius’s letter in a whisper to Ron and Hermione.

Nice try, Harry.

I’m back in the country and well hidden. I want you to keep me posted on everything that’s going on at Hogwarts. Don’t use Hedwig, keep changing owls, and don’t worry about me, just watch out for yourself. Don’t forget what I said about your scar.

Sirius

“Why d’you have to keep changing owls?” Ron asked in a low voice.

“Hedwig’ll attract too much attention,” said Hermione at once. “She stands out. A snowy owl that keeps returning to wherever he’s hiding ... I mean, they’re not native birds, are they?”

So, given that owls can be used to track, and given that wizards can do something to prevent this, the question should now be phrased as:

If Sirius wasn't blocking owl tracking then why couldn't the Ministry easily find him? And if he was blocking owl tracking then how was Harry able to correspond with him?

The answer may be very simple. It is possible that when Sirius first escaped from Azkaban he did engage the prevention techniques, thus allowing no one to find him or correspond with him. At that point there wasn't anyone that Sirius wanted to correspond with, so it wouldn't be a big deal for him to "go dark". This would have prevented the Ministry from tracking him at that point. By the time he met Harry it was almost a year later. By then he might have removed the tracking-prevention so Harry could contact him, but the Ministry had already given up on using owls to try to track him.

A slight variation of this idea would be that the Ministry never even bothered trying in the first place (regardless of whether Sirius had actually engaged the prevention mechanism) because they knew how simple it is for a wizard to block owl tracking.

  • This answer is way better than the one from JKR herself! – Shana Tar Oct 3 '18 at 15:12
-1

I have a different theory. What if owls actually don't fly to the person addressed. Maybe they just fly a short distance and Apparate (they may have such magical abilities) to the person. Plus maybe you cannot hold the owls through the journey, in other words maybe you cannot Apparate alongside an owl by grabbing onto it.

Hope this is likely and convincing, and can be confirmed.

New contributor
king royale is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • "Hope this is likely and convincing, and can be confirmed." - that's not how answers work, you should provide evidence yourself to back this up. If you don't have any it might be worthwhile to ask a question if it is the case or not. – TheLethalCarrot 2 days ago

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.