The courts of emerald green grass were glistening with dew on Monday morning as Rufus the Hawk spun in a wide circle and then – like a fighter jet descending onto an aircraft carrier – plummeted down for a perfect landing on the gloved hand of Wayne Davis.
The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club would not be open to spectators for a couple of hours and Wimbledon ball boys and girls helped prepare the courts for a day of games. Those in Rufus’ trajectory flinched and ducked as he swooped in. Others reached for their phones to capture the moment, or perhaps take a selfie, before Davis transported the now-tethered Falcon to another area of the club.
The banished young workers crowded around him like doves. And as for them indeed pigeons?
A long time ago.
It’s a tradition that began in 1999 and has since become as much a part of these legendary two-week championships as strawberries and cream. It’s not the Key Ceremony at the Tower of London, or the grand Trooping the Color at Queen Elizabeth’s recent Jubilee celebrations, but being England, the unleashing of the falcon carries its own sense of tradition, ceremony and spectacle.
Every morning, from 5 to 9, before thousands of spectators file in and the game begins, the beloved Harris’ hawk flies over the world’s most manicured tennis courts, keeping the pesky pesky birds at bay.
“When we started there were a lot of pigeons and we solved that problem,” said Davis, 59, of Corby in Northamptonshire, a two-and-a-half hour drive north of London. “It’s more of a preventive thing now.”
15-year-old Rufus is nearing the end of his reign and 3-year-old Horace is waiting in the wings. The original was Hamish. Davis prefers male hawks for the job because they are smaller and very nimble, allowing them to dart in and out of the nooks and crannies of the 42-acre site. At any moment, Rufus could be perched on the edge of Center Court’s retractable roof or in a sea of green seats, an oddly savage presence in such a civilized space. Sometimes he just disappears.
Rufus is equipped with falcon bells that ring like distant sleigh bells when he’s nearby – you can hear him before you see him – and a tiny GPS tracker that Davis can use to find him on his phone.
Although he has worked with Davis his entire life – Rufus began training when he was 15 weeks old – this hawk is no pet, no parrot on a pirate’s shoulder. He’s still a wild animal – which makes him better at his job – and it’s not uncommon for him to fly away for 24 hours or more, only returning when hungry. Davis holds a bag of pigeon parts over his shoulder. He can summon his hawk with a sharp “Hey!” while holding a piece of bird meat in his outstretched hand.
“Hawks aren’t like dogs,” Davis said. “It’s a different relationship because dogs respond to a tone in your voice, while in hawks and hawks it’s a much more basic response. The Falcon is basically a free spirit and I have to work with him.
“If he decides to do something I don’t want him to do – if he’s sitting on the roof and has eaten something and hasn’t come back – there’s nothing I can do. That’s the nature of the relationship. It’s very fragile. And it’s very rewarding because when he does something good, it’s special.”
In fact, Rufus isn’t a corgi, but he and Davis clearly have an understanding. While others watch from a safe distance – it’s quite special when those big wings start flapping – Davis is comfortable enough to get Rufus nose to beak. With dedication.
Center Court, with its 15,000 seats and its network of beams hanging from the ceiling and all the grass seeds a bird could wish for, would be “pigeon heaven,” Davis said. And indeed, for decades, pigeons were a little distraction. Players occasionally had to shoo them away with their clubs, and bird droppings were a nuisance to groundsmen.
“I remember occasionally having to reset my ritual on my serve because of a pigeon,” said Pam Shriver, who has won 22 titles in Grand Slam events and is now an ESPN broadcaster. “One could fall deep just as you were about to hit the ground. I’ve never landed on the net or got pigeon poo on me in the middle of a game, which might have brought me luck.”
For Davis, his love of falconry and ornithology began when he was a child. At 11 he got his first kestrel, larger than a songbird, smaller than most other birds of prey. This grew into a family business, using goshawks and falcons to clear airfields for safety, the exteriors of food factories, famous sites such as Westminster Abbey and, for the past 22 years, Wimbledon.
Across Britain and around the world people have used many other methods, most of them more modern, to deter pigeons. There are drones, lasers, and hearing aids (also plastic owls, but do that ever Work?). Davis prefers the path that has been tried and tested over the centuries.
“Falconry has probably been around in England since the 8th century and it’s been around all year round,” he said. “The parentage is exactly the same. The beauty of it is that we train a falcon today just as we did 1,300 years ago. It really has always remained a sport of kings.”
This isn’t just a once-a-year routine for Wimbledon. Davis and his birds visit the club several times a week throughout the year, sometimes working afternoons and evenings. The key is consistency and letting the doves know the threat is real.
“Birds are very adaptable; If it’s not physically affecting their well-being, they just ignore it,” Davis said. “You could have a big hawk that scares everyone, but after a few days… if it’s not physically chasing them and trying to eat and kill them, it’s not a threat.”
However, it would be a problem if Rufus actually managed to latch on to his prey on or above the play area.
“I’m trying to avoid that, because imagine if he caught one down there on center court,” Davis said. “Feathers would be everywhere, carnage.”
Most of the world’s top tennis players have met Rufus – or vice versa – and Davis is pinching himself for the career he has created.
“Hey, what else can you say?” he said. “Wimbledon, Falcons, nice weather. Perfect.”
Everywhere else is for the birds.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-07-06/wimbledon-2022-rufus-the-hawk-patrols-stadiums-grandstands Meet Rufus, the hawk who keeps pigeons away from Wimbledon