Meet Rufus, the hawk that keeps pigeons away from Wimbledon

The emerald grass courts glistened with dew on Monday morning as Rufus the hawk made a big circle, then – like a fighter jet descending on an aircraft carrier – swooped 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 few hours, and Wimbledon ball boys were helping to prepare the courts for a day of matches. Those in Rufus’ flight path flinched and ducked as he flew away. Others took out their phones to capture the moment or perhaps take a selfie before Davis carried the now tethered falcon to another area of ​​the club.

The petrified young workers crowded around him like pigeons. And as for the real pigeons?

Long gone.

Thanks Rufus.

It’s a tradition that began in 1999 and is now 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, of the ceremony and the show.

Every morning from 5am to 9am, before thousands of spectators enter and play begins, Harris’ beloved hawk flies over the best-maintained tennis courts in the world and wards off pest birds.

“There were a lot of pigeons when we started and we sorted that out,” said Davis, 59, from Corby in Northamptonshire, a 2.5-hour drive north of London. “It’s more of a preventative thing now.”

Wayne Davis introduces Rufus to the ballboys at Wimbledon the morning before the spectators arrive and play begins.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

Rufus, 15, is nearing the end of his reign and Horace, 3, waits in the wings. The original was Hamish. Davis prefers male hawks for work because they are smaller and very agile, allowing them to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of the 42-acre lot. At any given moment, Rufus may be perched on the edge of Center Court’s retractable roof or in a sea of ​​green seats, an eerily wild presence in such a civilized space. Other times it just disappears.

Rufus is equipped with falcon bells, which ring like distant sleigh bells when he’s nearby — you can hear him before you see him — and a tiny GPS tracking device that allows Davis to find him on his telephone.

Although he’s worked with Davis his whole life – Rufus started training when he was 15 weeks old – this hawk is not a pet, not a parrot on his shoulder. a pirate. It’s still a wild animal – which makes it better at its job – and it’s not uncommon for it to fly away for 24 hours or more, only returning when hungry. Davis keeps a satchel of pigeon parts slung over his shoulder. He can summon his falcon with a “Hey!” while holding a piece of bird meat in his outstretched hand.

“Falcons are not like dogs,” Davis said. “It’s a different relationship, because dogs react to a tone of your voice, whereas with hawks and hawks it’s a much more basic reaction. Hawk is basically a free spirit and I have to work with him.

“If he decides to do something that I don’t want him to do – if he sat on the roof and ate something and didn’t come back – I can’t do anything at all. C “That’s the nature of the relationship. It’s very fragile. And it’s very rewarding, because when he does something good, it’s something special.”

Indeed, Rufus isn’t a corgi, but he and Davis clearly have an understanding. While others watch from a safe distance – it’s something when those big wings start flapping – Davis is comfortable enough to come face to face with Rufus. With affection.

The 15,000-seat room in the central courtyard, with its network of beams lining the ceiling and all the grass seed a bird could want, would be “pigeon heaven,” Davis said. And, in fact, pigeons have been a minor distraction for decades. Players sometimes had to chase them away with their rackets, and bird droppings were an annoyance to gardeners.

“I remember sometimes 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 of them might be diving just as you were about to serve. I never had one landing on the net or had pigeon poop on me in the middle of a match, which could have brought me luck.

For Davis, his love of falconry and ornithology began when he was a child. At 11, he had his first kestrel, bigger than a songbird, smaller than most other birds of prey. This has become a family business in which Falcons and Falcons have been used to clean airfields for safety reasons, the exteriors of food manufacturing plants, iconic locations such as Westminster Abbey and, for 22 years , Wimbledon.

People across the UK and around the world have used many other, mostly more modern, methods of scaring away pigeons. There are drones, lasers and hearing aids (plastic owls too, but is it already work?). Davis prefers the proven method developed over centuries.

“Falconry has been in England probably since the 8th century and all the way through,” he said. “The lineage is exactly the same. The beautiful thing is that we train a falcon today exactly as they did 1,300 years ago. It has always remained a sport of kings, really.

It’s not just an annual 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 pigeons know the threat is real.

Rufus, Harris' hawk who patrols Wimbledon, perches near the seats.

Rufus, the Harris hawk who patrols Wimbledon, often jumps from seat to seat or perches to see center court.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

“Birds are very adaptive; if it doesn’t physically affect their well-being, they’ll just ignore it,” Davis said. “You might have a big hawk that would terrify everything, but after a few days…if it’s not physically chasing them and trying to eat and kill them, it’s not a threat.”

That said, it would be a problem if Rufus actually succeeded and latched onto his prey on or above the playing surface.

“That’s what I try to avoid, because imagine if he caught one over there on center court,” Davis said. “There would be feathers everywhere, carnage.”

Wayne Davis can check his cell phone to see Rufus' location via a tracking device.

Wayne Davis can check his cell phone to see Rufus’ location via a tracking device.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

Most of the best tennis players in the world have met Rufus – or vice versa – and Davis almost has to pinch the career he created.

“Hey, what more can you say?” he said. “Wimbledon, hawks, good weather. Perfect.”

Everywhere else is for the birds.

Wayne Davis walks with Rufus around an outdoor court at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

Wayne Davis walks with Rufus around an outdoor court at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

(Sam Farmer/Los Angeles Times)

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