It’s Wedding Season: Here Come the Owls

Juliet has been to many weddings, and she’s a pro. While the happy couple are exchanging vows, she comes out of a dark box and hops onto the gloved arm of Duncan Blake, her handler. With a 270-degree turn of her head, she takes in her surroundings.

A squeaky sound suddenly jolts her into motion. Whoosh — off she flies down the aisle, two rings in a little pouch tied around her skinny ankles. Gasps come from the humans sitting below her stretched wings. Seconds later, she lands on another outstretched arm, often belonging to the best man, other times to a bride or groom.

For a moment, Juliet is the star of the ceremony. After delivering the rings, she flies back to Mr. Blake’s arm and receives her reward: a raw chicken’s foot.

She then leaves the room as quickly as she entered it — more than 50 million years of evolution and some 90 seconds of action later — as the humans turn their attention back to the couple.

By now you will have realized that Juliet is an owl, one of several around Britain who have been trained to take a starring role in wedding ceremonies.

The idea of an owl at a wedding gained traction in Britain more than 15 years ago, according to the people who make a living providing them. They trace the rise directly to the popularity of “Harry Potter,” in which owls serve as mail carriers for the wizarding world.

“They’re quite a mainstay of British weddings,” said Zoe Burke, an editor at the wedding planning website Hitched. Social media plays a role too, she said, with BookTok fueling the popularity of literary-themed weddings not just in Britain but in the United States and elsewhere.

“Millennials just love a trend,” Ms. Burke said.

For many couples, whether they’re into wizardry or not, the owl’s presence is mostly about giving guests a special experience, Ms. Burke said. This was the case for Lucy and Scott Robinson, who said “I do” in April on a sunny, windy Tuesday afternoon in Stoke-on-Trent, England. It was their wedding at which Juliet the barn owl took her star turn.

“We’re not particular ‘Harry Potter’ fans,” Ms. Robinson, 31, said. The couple had been looking for a special surprise for their guests and stumbled on the owl option during an online search.

Adding birds to the wedding, said Mr. Robinson, 33, seemed “like a no brainer.”

At the Robinson wedding, Juliet was one of seven birds present. Mr. Blake, a falconer at Bird on the Hand, brought the birds of prey (including a steppe eagle, a gyrfalcon and a Harris’s hawk) to entertain the guests with a bird show during the reception, during which the guests took turns putting on the falconer’s gloves and perching the birds on their arms.

While the costs vary depending on the service, the birds’ performance at the Robinson wedding cost 745 pounds (about $951). Photographs with guests cost extra (about $96 per half-hour). Couples can also opt for a mini falconry experience on top of a static display, which includes birds flying back and forth between guests, for 699 pounds (about $893).

The father of the bride, Dean McAllister, a longtime bird watcher, said he was excited to feel the weight of a bird on his arm for the first time (he held a steppe eagle). “It’s a touch of genius as far as I am concerned,” he said.

“I’m not an occasion man,” Mr. McAllister added, “but the birds make the difference.”

For those who don’t enjoy having too many eyes on them, the bird fulfills another role: It takes some of the pressure off. As the barn owl swooped over the guests at the Robinson wedding, everyone was looking up. For a few seconds, the eyes were off the bride.

“I don’t like too much attention,” Ms. Robinson said.

Her groom said he found the creatures very beautiful to look at. “I’m very keen on birds,” Mr. Robinson said, and he thought the birds made the guests feel comfortable. “Nobody is feeling left out.”

By and large, owls’ performances at weddings go off without a hitch, said Mr. Blake, the falconer. He’s been taking Juliet to weddings for five years, he said, and she has never flown off with the rings.

Occasionally, of course, something goes wrong. For example, a bride who has an owl sit on her arm any stretch of time might not end up with an all-white wedding dress. And in 2018, an owl delivered rings to the altar and then attacked a guest at a wedding in Cheshire, England.

Yvonne Forrester, a registrar from Staffordshire council who officiated the Robinson wedding, said it was her third featuring an owl. Her nephew got married using an owl as ring bearer, she said. At that wedding, the owl had to fly across a small body of water. Instead, the owl flew into the woods — carrying the real rings — delaying the ceremony for half an hour as members of the wedding party frantically went after it.

Sarah Elvin, a wedding photographer who has shot hundreds of weddings over the past 15 years all over Britain, said that when the trend first took hold more than a decade ago, there was “barely a wedding” without a flying ring bearer. Since the pandemic, she said, she’s seen owls return as a mainstay at British weddings.

For the guests in Stoke-on-Trent this spring, the birds were a novelty as well as entertainment while the couple was off posing for pictures.

“They’re quite magnificent,” said Richard Finch, 33, a friend and current housemate of the Robinsons, adding that he had never seen birds of prey at a wedding. “It’s very different,” Mr. Finch said, looking at the birds on display on their perches. He said he found the birds a bit intimidating (“they put the fear of god in you”), but he also felt a “bit sorry for them.”

Animal rights campaigners do not support the use of birds of prey at weddings, or as any kind of entertainment. Isobel McNally, with the charity Freedom for Animals, said that having owls as ring bearers went against the birds’ nocturnal instinct to rest during the day.

“Owls are wild animals and should be respected as such,” Ms. McNally said. “It is totally unethical and immoral to keep owls for performance and entertainment.”

Mr. Blake, the falconer, said that the work he did with birds wasn’t only focused on entertainment but also on education and conservation efforts.

“Our birds are well cared for and get regular exercise, we also ensure that they are not under any stress when at public events,” he said.

Dealing with wild animals always carries a certain risk. “It could have gone terribly wrong,” Ms. Robinson said after Juliet had successfully delivered the rings to the best man, Mitch Herod.

“It was easy,” said Mr. Herod, a school friend of the groom. In the end, the only small hiccup was because of human error, something Mr. Herod readily admitted: “I did drop the rings.”

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