A UK falconer trains owls to deliver rings at wedding ceremonies

A UK falconer trains owls to deliver rings at wedding ceremonies

At a recent wedding ceremony in Britain, guests gasped when it came time for the couple to exchange rings.

A large, white barn owl suddenly swooped in, soaring down the aisle with a tiny pouch attached to one of its legs.

The owl, named Juno, landed on the gloved hand of the best man, who gently untied the pouch and retrieved the wedding rings before the bird flew back to its handler.

It is a growing wedding trend for couples who enjoy animal appearances at their nuptials. Cats and dogs have long done the honors for couples who don’t have, or don’t want, a person for the task. Wedding ceremonies are increasingly incorporating other animals, including alpacas, goats and even penguins.

Groom Derek Derby said guests probably took more photos of Juno the owl than of him and his bride at their Jan. 27 wedding in Chester, England.

Owl ring bearers have become more popular at British weddings in the years since the success of the Harry Potter books and movies, in a nod to Hedwig, Harry’s snowy owl that delivered mail without an address, bird trainer Ryan Stocks said.

Juno is one of Stocks’s two ring bearer owls. Stocks rescues wounded raptors, and his Owl Adventures is among more than 20 companies licensed to use barn owls in weddings and for educational purposes in Britain.

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The average cost of a wedding in the U.K. is about $26,000, according to Hitched. In the U.S. a study by The Knot found that the average wedding has soared to about $35,000.

The cost of an owl ring delivery — about $400 to $600 in Britain — was worth it to Derby and his bride, Dawn Braithwaite.

“I was looking for something different to help add some extra wow factor, so having an owl ring bearer made sense,” Derby said.

While most of the ceremonies have gone smoothly, an owl fell asleep in a chapel’s rafters in 2013 and missed the big moment, while another of the raptors flew into the best man in 2018 and knocked him to the floor. Owls can be dangerous when protecting their nests, but attacks on people are rare. Handlers wear thick leather gloves to protect their skin from the raptors’ curved, sharp talons.

Juno and another barn owl named Dusty are scheduled for almost 100 weddings in Britain this year, and Stocks said he’s scheduled to take one of them to Greece for a ceremony on the island of Santorini in 2025.

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He learned to train owls and other raptors while working at the Light Water Valley Birds of Prey Centre in North Yorkshire. In 2006, when his boss at the time decided they should teach a couple of barn owls to deliver wedding rings, Stocks was all-in.

In 2011, he made his work with raptors into a full-time career. He estimates that his trained owls have appeared at more than 500 weddings.

“Owls are fascinating, majestic birds, and many people have never had an up-close look at one,” he said. “I love to teach people about them.”

In the U.S., owls and other raptors have been used in educational programs at bird rescues, and they’ve also been trained to help with rodent control. One famous falcon is working as an artist in Vermont.

A few licensed bird centers, including the Ohio School of Falconry and California’s Raptor Events, have used owls as ring bearers at weddings, but the tradition is far more popular in Britain.

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The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to capture, own or sell birds of prey and other wild birds in the U.S. without federal permission.

“In the United States, there are more restrictions than in the U.K., where we have a long tradition of falconry from the medieval era, when the birds were used for hunting,” Stocks said.

In Britain, falconry clubs are common and barn owls can be kept by licensed handlers, he said. But the birds have to come from certified breeders and cannot be taken from the wild.

“We have regular inspections from the local authorities, but there is more of a tradition here to work with owls,” Stocks said. “I’ve loved them since I saw my first owl when I was a young child.

Stocks keeps 12 raptors — an eagle, three hawks, a falcon and seven owls — that he uses for flying shows and presentations at schools and senior care centers. Two of his barn owls are trained to deliver wedding rings, he said.

“They fit the part for a wedding,” he said. “They’re graceful when they fly, they’re not too big and they’re white.”

He trained Juno and Dusty when they were young to fly to and from a handler’s glove. At weddings, he attaches a clip to their legs that holds a small pouch.

At weddings, the owls fly out of a box, look for the leather glove held up by the best man and immediately fly to it with the rings, he said.

“We have a practice session first, and the birds wear a GPS tag, just in case,” Stocks said. “But I haven’t had either of them get spooked and take off on their own.”

“One big advantage is that a wedding aisle provides them a straight line to fly to,” he added.

Fay Stickland said the moment she saw Juno online, there was no question she wanted an owl to deliver ribbons for her and her fiancé’s hand-tying ceremony — a ritual in which couples tie ribbons around each other’s wrists instead of exchanging rings.

She said Juno added an authentic, ethereal quality to her barn wedding last November to longtime partner Richard Stickland.

“It was like being part of a real-life fairy tale,” she said. “There were a few tense moments when my father-in-law [the best man] struggled to untie the bag from the owl’s leg, but my husband quickly stepped in to help.”

Stocks said his favorite part of each wedding is when he sees guests’ reactions as Juno or Dusty soar in.

“It’s a lovely moment,” he said.

As for his own plans, he says he and his girlfriend, Dee Hall, are engaged, but they don’t intend to involve owls in their upcoming ceremony. After all, part of the charm is the element of surprise.

“I’m thinking that would be too expected,” he said.

A UK falconer trains owls to deliver rings at wedding ceremonies

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