How do owls deliver the mail in Harry Potter?
I was watching Harry Potter last night because it was raining (that’s a separate issue) when a question started to peck at my brain. Everybody takes owl post for granted; how does it work, though? You can’t have owls flying all over the globe willy-nilly, Muggles will notice (1). Thus, you can expect owls to be owls and fly mainly at night, cutting down on the number of Muggle sightings. Still, the logistics of owl post are a little involved when you look at it in a regulatory, trans-national context.
First, though, the basics:
How fast can an owl fly?
Answers from various internet sources vary.
But I don’t like trusting the Internet. Let’s use the actual account from the book and the Ministry owl that delivered the Underage Magic Admonishment to Harry in the second book.
The incident occurred at 9:12 PM, let’s just round up the time the letter was drafted and the owl sent out to 9:20. The distance from London to Surrey is 20 miles, as the crow flies (4). Let’s also assume that the time it took the Dursleys to calm and “shoo the Masons back into the dining room” for after-dinner mints was about 20 minutes. This means that the speed of an owl carrying a letter weighing, at the most, 100g (that’s 3.5 oz), which is the 50p limit for the Royal Mail, is 60 mph.
This lines up with the snowy owl figure, with a little magic bump in speed.
How far can an owl fly?
In 8 hours at the 60mph figure, that means anywhere within a 480 mile radius can be reached in one night. Conveniently enough, this covers all of the UK pretty perfectly. It also gets parts of Norway and the westernmost parts of Denmark (5). For the record, I have the center of this circle at Loch Dallas (located in Scotland). In the third book, Sirius was spotted in Dufftown (the one in Scotland, presumably), to which Hermione replied, “That’s not far from here.” Loch Dallas=Black Lake…ish.
As for how far they can fly in one go, some migratory birds have been known to fly up to 11000km without a rest (6). These are flock birds though, which will go through rotations in the “v” to benefit from drafting. Owls are solo, and don’t have the physiology of migratory birds. However, I couldn’t find any figures for that, since owls mostly just swoop and glide for short intervals while hunting, so let’s just go with a magical 11000km range. This means that they can fly to pretty much anywhere on the globe in one go, save for Australia, the southern tips of south America, and Antarctica (7). Not bad, owl post, not bad at all.
How much can an owl carry (An African or European owl?)?
Couldn’t find a damn thing for this. Some fool on yahoo answers was saying that some eagles can lift 70-95lb deer. Let’s all laugh at him.
Here’s an eagle “lifting” a goat. That was the closest thing to 70-95lb I could find.
Here is a more reasonable video of an eagle carrying a fish. What does a fish weigh, something like 1-2 kg?
According to this internet expert, a 3.75lb hawk can lift 1.75lb, a 5lb great horned owl can carry 3lb, and a monstrous 15lb bald eagle can carry anywhere from 10-12lb. These seem more plausible, but that doesn’t mean that they’re correct.
Let’s just assume that they’re fine for letters over long distances. We’ll just magic those letters away.
So that’s it from an owl’s physical capacity standpoint. If you sent a letter from Hogwarts, you could assume it would get to your recipient in a night, if he or she lived in the UK.
What if you wanted your owl to go further though? What if you don’t know where your recipient is living? What if you don’t have an owl?
Let’s start with the easiest:
What if you don’t have an owl?
Hogwarts features a nice little Owlery where the school owls and students’ personal owls spend their down-time.
Also, Hogsmeade has a nice post office with “200 owls all color-coded by how fast you want your letter to get there! (8)”
Or you can just borrow an owl from your friend (I don’t have a citation for that, but I’m pretty sure Hermione borrows Hedwig and Harry borrows Pig at one point).
What if you don’t know where your recipient is?
The hallmark case of Sirius Black: how did Hedwig know where Sirius was? She didn’t have the remarkably specific address featured in the first book. I’m just going to have to chalk this one up to magic. It’s possible that the birds talk and the tropical bird (9) told her where its sender was located. Maybe Crookshanks is getting a little something something on the side from Sirius with Hedwig.
This brings up an interesting question though:
Why can’t the Ministry of Magic use owls to track down Sirius/Voldemort?
Again, magic. Sirius could have used magic to hide himself from everybody except those he wanted to find him, namely, Hedwig. Maybe some sort of super-specific Fidelius Charm. It could have been that in order to use the owl, you would have to follow the owl (owl can’t tell you where it’s been), and maybe nobody stepped up to the plate to take on that responsibility.
Finally, international shipping
Shouldn’t be too much of a problem, right? Wrong! Bureaucracy messes everything up. We know there are separate Ministry of Magics. “The” Ministry of Magic governs the UK. However, there is a Bulgarian Minister of Magic (10). It stands to reason there’s a French one. Probably an American Ministry/Department. All of these Ministries will have their own restrictions on what can be shipped through their country. For this, I just used their respective Muggle governments’ mail rules.
Can’t ship to UK
Horror comics, matrices, jewelry, live bees (although live queen bees can be shipped if accompanied by an import license and a health certificate).
Can’t ship to France
Human remains, saccharine, funeral urns.
Can’t ship to Bulgaria
Musical cards, religious materials, printed matter except single copies for the personal use of addresses and not contrary to Bulgarian laws and customs (Sorry, Hermione, no SPEW brochures) (11).
Last thing, why would you use an owl when you can use a Patronus? Many of the Order use Patronuses to send messages quickly, efficiently (sometimes to multiple people at once: 12), and safely. I would assume that because it’s such an advanced piece of magic, not everybody knows how to use it. Same with Apparation: it can get messy so some wizards don’t even bother (13).
That’s pretty much all I could think of. Sort of an abrupt end, but I have to go eat.
1: HP and Sorcerer’s Stone
8: Prisoner of Azkaban; “Flight of the Fat Lady”
9: Prisoner of Azkaban; “Owl Post”
10: Goblet of Fire; “Chapter 8”
12: Deathly Hallows; “The Sacking of Severus Snape”
13: Goblet of Fire; “The Portkey”