- Donna Davis’ Harris hawk Rufus is the official pigeon scarer of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
- Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and the Duchess of Cornwall are among the fans of Rufus.
- This is how Davis’s case came about keeping pigeons out of competitions, Claire Turrell told me.
- For more stories, visit www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
This narrated essay is based on a conversation with Donna Davis, the 55-year-old director of Avian Environmental Consultants. It has been edited for length and clarity.
In 1985 I founded Avian Environmental Consultants with my husband. We flew hawks and falcons to Royal Air Force bases and flour mills in the UK to deter gulls and pigeons; I never imagined that the 153-year-old All England Club would become our office.
I’ve always been a tennis fan, but there was one game in particular that I remember: when Pete Sampras played at Wimbledon in 1999.
In the middle of the action, a pigeon landed on the lawn and stopped playing.
When this happened – often – a ball boy or girl tried to chase the intruder away, but I knew I had the solution
His name was Hamish. It was a Harris hawk, weighed about 650 grams, had a wingspan of 120 centimeters and flew at speeds of up to 45 km/h. I called the All England Club, offered Hamish services and within weeks he became the chief scarecrow and regularly patrolled the grounds.
Every week Hamish would patrol the club to keep pigeons from rusting in the grounds and chase them away from the lawns where they would land to nibble on the grass seed. His grandson – Rufus – has now followed in his footsteps and, having spent 14 years at Wimbledon, is a fixture in the tournament.
Not only do professional tennis players like Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray ask to meet him, but an American fan chose to dress as Rufus, and other fans follow Rufus on Twitter.
We live on a farm in Northamptonshire but during the tournament we stay in Wimbledon Village.
As it is a family run business, my husband, daughter or myself will wake up at 3:30 am on race day and I will be on site with Rufus at 4:30 am. We also take two other hawks – Castor and Pollux – to divide the work.
Once we get to the track we make sure they have their GPS trackers on and weigh them to make sure they are at their ideal fly weight of 650 grams.
If they are overweight, they have eaten too much and will not be in the mood to chase pigeons.
Our first port of call is Center Court, where I release Rufus
At this time of day we have the place to ourselves, and it’s magical. It’s unreal to work and fly with hawks here.
When you bring a hawk to a new location, you must show it where to look through hand gestures. After 14 years, however, Rufus knows he needs to check under the roof for doves resting, and fly over Murray’s Mount – where the bird invaders could be snacking on picnic leftovers.
Usually the patrol goes smoothly. Occasionally one of the hawks may mistake a BBC sound boom for a rabbit and try to grab it.
Rufus is a wild bird, so he sometimes basks in the sun on the roof of the course or flies to the nearby golf club to take a bath in a water feature. He only comes back for food, which is a diet of quail, day-old chicks or pigeons. It wouldn’t be ideal if he caught a pigeon himself; he wouldn’t be interested in coming back to me.
The birds patrol the courts for £95 an hour until 9am when the crowds start to arrive. Castor and Pollux are allowed to return to their aviary in our rented house where they can relax and take a bath, and Rufus is allowed to stay to do his media rounds.
We really only had one stressful time bringing the hawks to Wimbledon
In 2012, someone stole Rufus from our vehicle. But luckily, with all the media attention, the kidnapper apparently gave up and three days later a passerby found Rufus unharmed in his cage on Wimbledon Common.
We bring the hawks to the sites at an early age so they can get used to the sights and sounds of the city. However, Harris’s hawks are very calm: we can train one through food within three weeks. They begin to fly free once they are used to being fed.
We start by placing the hawk on a perch and attach the bird to a light cord called a creance. We will show the hawk the food in our gloved hand, and the bird will simply jump to its fist to claim its reward.
The next day, step back further and repeat the process. By the time we are ten feet from his perch and the hawk flies to our hands to receive food, we feel comfortable letting him fly free: he now knows we are a food source.
We also work with peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons
While the hawks scare the pigeons, we use the larger falcons to scare away any gulls.
For the Queen’s Jubilee, we worked at St. Paul’s Cathedral and used our birds to chase away the seagulls bombarding the camera crews and security.
It’s incredible to be able to use an ancient art form as a sustainable solution in the modern urban landscape. The pigeons are not injured; they just know they need to sleep somewhere else.
We’re not worried about Rufus retiring in the near future. The oldest captive Harris hawk in the world is over 30, so Rufus is just in his teenage phase.