‘Unflappable’ owls wow wedding guests with ring deliveries
Last updated Feb 12, 2024
Photo of Ryan Stocks, owner of Ripon-based Owl Adventures, with Storm, a 10-year-old female steppe eagle.
Ryan Stocks with Storm, a 10-year-old female steppe eagle.

Just before Christmas one year, Ryan Stocks received a phone call from an employee to tell him that one of his owls was stuck behind a church organ. 

The owl, who had been on duty at a wedding, had been spooked by something and wouldn’t come down. It had even set off a fire alarm by landing on a sensor. The trouble was, Ryan was in London but the owl was in Hull. 

After dashing up the motorway, he arrived at the church just before it shut, spotted his bird, held out his hand, whistled and waited. Within seconds, the owl glided down and the drama was over. 

Last year, Ryan’s Ripon-based company, Owl Adventures, bought Barn Owl Ring-Bearer, a Durham-based firm that was the first in the UK to hire out owls trained to deliver the rings at weddings, and he’s been busy ever since. 

The ‘Hull incident’ was a rare glitch, he explains: 

“That particular owl, it transpired, would only fly for me. I’d hand-reared it and it had latched on to me probably more than an owl normally would do. So it would fly to anyone, but only if I was present – if he could see me for comfort or confidence. But that’s just an example of how different their personalities are.” 

He adds: 

“The bride didn’t want a refund – she was just so happy that we got the owl down.” 

A former pupil of Ripon City School (now Outwood Academy), Ryan, now an experienced falconer, set up Owl Adventures in 2011 and has 15 birds: three barn owls and 12 others, including a horned owl, steppe eagle, falcon, harris hawks, pygmy owl, Indian scops owl and a white-faced owl. 

He also runs a ‘mobile zoo’, whose stars – snakes, lizards, tarantulas, a tortoise and various creepy-crawlies (his term) – all live in vivariums in his home. 

Ryan and his fiancée Dee, who is, thankfully, as enthusiastic as he is about the whole menagerie, offer several services, all animal-based, including flying shows, visits to schools and care homes. 

They even offer pest control, flying harris hawks to scare off pigeons and seagulls from industrial premises. Clients include Unilever, B&Q and Reckitt. 

But it’s the barn owl ring-bearing service that grabs people’s attention. Not because it’s unique – it may be the first service of its kind, but it’s no longer the only one – but because it’s so magical: owls make people happy.

Ryan says: 

The best weddings are when people are laughing in the service. When I hear that before I go into the room, I think ‘this is going to be great’. You’re going to get a good reaction. 

“And some of the nicest weddings we do are some of the smaller ones really, in one of the nice wedding venues. Most of the weddings we do are outside or they are in hotels or castles or a specialist wedding venue. Because the people who are going to go for an owl are probably a bit more likely to be people who want a less traditional wedding.” 

Photo of a barn owl flying silently down the aisle as guests look on at a small church wedding.

One of Ryan’s Stocks’ owls earning its keep.

Typically, Ryan will turn up for a wedding an hour early, to ensure that he and the owl can get into position unseen – it’s supposed to be a secret, known only to the groom and best man. 

He’ll then quickly train the owl-receiver to do his bit, and at the right point in the ceremony will slip into the back of the church, and release the owl. The best man, wearing a previously concealed glove, receives the owl, the rings are delivered, and the bride, hopefully, is delighted. 

Some clients ask him to have the owl deliver notes, which isn’t great, he says: 

“They have to be folded up really tiny, because something flat like that will cause a bit of drag on the bird.” 

After the ceremony, Ryan and his owl stick around to entertain guests and be photographed. 

They can do up to three weddings a day in high season, as well as other shows, so he alternates the owls, Juno, Bailey, Sweep and Dusty. They’ve performed all over the UK, and even have a booking in Greece later this year. 

Photo of a happy bridge and groom, who is wearing a falconry gautlet and a white barn owl is perching on his hand.

Photo: Camilla Armstrong.

He says: 

“It feels busy now and it’s winter. Summer frightens me, because we’ll have five things a day sometimes. We might have one pest-control hawk going out to a factory, we might have two static display events, one flying show and two weddings. Logistically, it’s quite a challenge. You just think, ‘please don’t get ill, please don’t have a vehicle breakdown’!” 

Most of the time, the owls behave – Ryan says it’s as if the glove is magnetic – but occasionally things don’t go to plan, as happened in Hull. 

He even had one owl that was agoraphobic, and didn’t like flying outside. 

“We didn’t use that one for weddings – we just found it a suitable home. That’s quite rare.

“We hand-rear them, and have dogs around them, and music and noise, so they’re very much used to noise and distraction. 

“Some of the shows we do – game fairs, steam rallies, dog shows, horse shows, stunt shows – are really noisy, and there can even be people firing guns. And you just think ‘they won’t fly in this’, but they don’t care. They’re so used to people, and things that people get up to, that they’re just not bothered by it at all.” 

You could say they’re… unflappable. But that’s not to say they don’t need looking after. They have a varied diet – cockerel chicks, mice, rats, rabbit, quail, all frozen and delivered by truck – and Ryan checks their health and weighs them daily. He says: 

“They live about three times as long in captivity as they do in the wild. One reason is that they’re not eating any poison or disease in the prey they catch. A pigeon can carry up to 21 diseases, and the poison that can be used against rodents can be dangerous too. 

“The thing about birds is that they don’t look ill until the very end. So capturing things really early, be it bumblefoot or frounce, or one of those common things, is vital.” 

Fortunately, he’s pretty good at that. In fact, when he goes to goes to the vets in Ripon, they sometimes ask him his opinion. 

He says: 

“They invite me into their examination rooms to look at the bird. I feel like a fraud – I’m not a vet! – but I know more about birds of prey than they do.” 

Ryan and his feathered employees are proof, if it were needed, that the science and art of falconry may be ancient, but it hasn’t stood still. In fact, each of the owls is even fitted with a GPS gadget. He says: 

“I hope never to have to rely on it, but it’s a wise precaution – just in case one of them ever decided to make off with the rings!”

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