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As we find out quite quickly, wizards in the Harry Potter world use owls for communication. Why owls?

They can attract unwanted attention, such as:

  • At the very beginning when even the muggles noticed: "bird-watchers everywhere have reported that the nation's owls have been behaving very unusually today."
  • In the second year, when Platform 9¾ closes on them, Hedwig attracts attention by screeching.

Why not use, e.g. carrier pigeons?

  • 13
    well... why not!? Thank god it wasn't an exotic bird like a peacock as I have 2 owls at home now.. couldn't get a pet peacock! – iamserious Mar 14 '12 at 16:33
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    i guess because the books were conceived in the early 90s, and SMS, twitter, status updates weren't available then. :) – Manik Sethisuwan May 24 '12 at 9:53
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    A snow owl stuffed toy looks cute, so they can sell more merchandise this way. They couldn't sell as many stuffed crows or ravens. – b_jonas Jan 30 '13 at 13:36
  • Plus, carrier pidgeons would be really boring compared to owls. – Zibbobz Feb 14 '14 at 17:06
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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.

-- JK Rowling -- Scholastic Web Chat 2

SOURCE: HP Lexicon

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    Because owls are traditionally associated with magic I must have missed that memo. – Xantec Jan 26 '12 at 3:00
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    @Slytherincess Even Merlin has an owl: Archimedes. – Alenanno Mar 14 '12 at 16:40
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    @Alenanno I agree. JK Rowling was obviously influenced by earlier fantasy works dealing with wizards (e.g., The Once and Future King). According to Wikipedia's owl article: "The modern West generally associates owls with wisdom. This link goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece, where Athens, noted for art and scholarship, and Athena, Athens' patron goddess and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as a symbol." More on Athenian owls: rg.ancients.info/owls – BennyMcBenBen Mar 14 '12 at 19:10
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    @balancedmama I guess I really did miss that memo. Thanks. – Xantec Dec 31 '12 at 0:26
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    @Slytherincess: Archimedes wasn’t a Disney creation — The Sword in the Stone was originally a novel by T. H. White (it’s great fun), and Archimedes certainly appears in that. As far as I know he’s original to that book though, not in any older Arthurian legends. – PLL Dec 16 '15 at 16:03
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JK considered owls intelligent and a symbol of wisdom. Actually, many cultures consider the owl a symbol of wisdom, or a magical being. Maybe she used this wisdom and magical heritage to her advantage. The owls seem to understand their wizards when they direct them where to go. They can even read the letters they carry. They're probably just a particularly magical bird. Useful, though a bit flashy.

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    JK considered owls intelligent except Ron's Pigwidgeon. – hims056 Jul 19 '14 at 6:49
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    Ironically, owls are among the dumber of bird species. I have that on authority from an actual owl-trainer. Parrots would make more sense, but definitely look out of place in Britain. My choice would've been crows, ravens, or starlings, which are both fairly intelligent and common in England - though Game of Thrones (the book) got there first I think... – Darrel Hoffman Dec 16 '15 at 18:24
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    Ravens would be the obvious choice: Huginn and Muninn were how Odin/Woden gathered intelligence about the world. – Martin Bonner Feb 14 '17 at 10:25
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Another reason nobody mentioned: owls are naturally nocturnal. 1

It's quite possible that they began to be used around the time the International Statute of Secrecy was adopted. That way, you could send messages at night, thus avoiding torch-and-pitchfork-carrying muggle neighbors. Animals have numerous advantages over magical means of communication, but that's another question/answer.

This nighttime activity is most likely a big part of why they are considered magical out-of-universe. There aren't many birds as well-adapted to nighttime behavior as owls.2 You could use bats, but they don't fly as well and are a bit too small for large packages.

  • Interesting point, but wizards' owls do seem to fly at least as much during the day too, which would actually draw unwanted attention towards them—see, e.g. the very first chapter, wherein the muggles noticed an unusual quantity of owls flying during the daytime. – Kevin Sep 8 '17 at 20:11
  • Owl flight is also silent unlike almost every other bird alive, even flying though the day they could fly past you within meters and you wouldnt know unless your saw it. If one flew past your from behind the first you would know is when its infront (by that time you wouldnt have time to register what type of bird it was, visually) – Matt Oct 1 '17 at 0:37
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Carrier pigeon are called homing pigeons for a reason. They cannot deliver messages towards arbitrary recipients, they just return to their home base.

As Slytherincess' answer points out, owls have a certain "association" to magic, which allows them to locate, track and reach an arbitrary recipient. It could be that this means that at least one of participants need to be magician, so Muggles cannot use owls for communication purposes between themselves.

Also, Muggles use homing pigeons with great success (they are faster than owls). This might an issue for the self-proclaimed "magic elite" in the HP universe: they failed at breeding high-speed avian carrier, so they simply condemn the possibly otherwise superior animal as "too mugglish". This is, however, pure speculation on my behalf.

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