The emerald turf pitches shimmered with dew Monday morning as Rufus the falcon made a wide circle and then, like a fighter jet descending on an aircraft carrier, swooped in for a perfect landing on Wayne Davis’s gloved hand. .
The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club would not be open to spectators for a couple of hours, and the Wimbledon ballboys were helping prepare the courts for match day. Those in Rufus’s flight path flinched and ducked as he rose. 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 paralyzed young workers swarmed around her like doves. And as for the current pigeons?
It’s a tradition that began in 1999 and has become as much a part of these two-week championships as strawberries and cream. It’s not the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London or the grand Trooping the Color at Queen Elizabeth’s recent jubilee celebrations, but this being England, the release of the falcon has its own sense of tradition, ceremony and spectacle.
Every morning from 5 to 9, before thousands of spectators file in and the game begins, Harris’s beloved hawk soars over the world’s most manicured tennis courts, keeping pesky pesky birds away.
“There were a lot of pigeons when we started and we fixed that problem,” said Davis, 59, from Corby in Northamptonshire, a two-and-a-half hour drive north of London. “It’s more of a preventative thing now.”
Fifteen-year-old Rufus is nearing the end of his reign, and 3-year-old Horace waits in the wings. The original was Hamish. Davis prefers male falcons for the job because they are smaller and very agile, allowing them to get in and out of the nooks and crannies of the 42-acre grounds. At any moment, Rufus could be sitting on the edge of center court’s retractable roof or in a sea of green seats, a strangely wild presence in such a civilized space. Other times, he just disappears.
Rufus is equipped with falcon bells, which tinkle like distant sleigh bells when he’s close (you can hear it before you see it), and a small GPS tracking device that allows Davis 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 falcon is not a pet, not a 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 for 24 hours or more, returning only when hungry. Davis carries a bag with pigeon parts slung over his shoulder. He can summon the falcon from him with a sharp “Hey!” as he holds a piece of poultry meat in his outstretched hand.
“Falcons are not like dogs,” Davis said. “It’s a different relationship, because dogs respond to the tone of your voice, whereas with hawks and falcons, it’s a much more basic reaction. The falcon is basically a free spirit and I have to work with him.
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“If he decides to do something I don’t want him to do, if he sat on the roof and ate something and didn’t come back, there’s nothing he can do. That is the nature of the relationship. It is very fragile. And it’s very rewarding, because when he does something good, it’s something special.”
In fact, Rufus is not a corgi, but he and Davis clearly understand each other. As others watch from a safe distance (it’s amazing when those big wings start flapping), Davis feels comfortable enough to come face to face with Rufus. With love.
The site of the 15,000-seat center court, with its network of rafters lining the ceiling and all the grass seeds a bird could want, would be “pigeon heaven,” Davis said. And indeed, the pigeons were a minor distraction for decades. Players sometimes had to shoo them away with their rackets, and the bird droppings were a nuisance to gardeners.
“I remember occasionally having to reset my ritual on my serve because of a pigeon,” said Pam Shriver, who won 22 Grand Slam titles and is now an ESPN broadcaster. “One could be plummeting when you were about to serve. I never had a fall on the net or pigeon poop in the middle of a match, which could have brought me good luck.”
For Davis, his love of falconry and ornithology began as a child. At 11 he had his first kestrel, larger than a songbird, smaller than most birds of prey. That grew into a family business where hawks and falcons are used to clean airfields for safety, the exteriors of food manufacturing plants, iconic places like Westminster Abbey and, for the last 22 years, Wimbledon. .
Across the UK and the world, people have used many other methods, most of them more modern, to ward off pigeons. There are drones, lasers, and hearing devices (plastic owls, too, but do those ever to work?). Davis prefers the tried and true way developed over centuries.
“Falconry has been in England probably since the 8th century and until the end,” he said. “The lineage is exactly the same. The beautiful thing about this is that we train a falcon today exactly as they did 1,300 years ago. It has always been a sport of kings, really”.
This is not 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 pigeons know that the threat is real.
“Birds are very adaptable; if it doesn’t physically affect their well-being, they’ll just ignore it,” Davis said. “You could have a big hawk that would terrify everything, but after a couple of 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 off the playing surface.
“That’s what I’m trying to avoid, because imagine if he catches one there on center court,” Davis said. “There would be feathers everywhere, carnage.”
Most of the best tennis players in the world have known Rufus, or vice versa, and Davis almost has to pinch himself for the career he has created.
“Hey, what else can you say?” he said. “Wimbledon, hawks, good weather. Perfect.”
Every other place is for the birds.