A hawk-eye on Centre Court! A day with Wimbledon’s star pigeon-chaser

·11 min read
<span>Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA</span>
Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

If humans thought like hawks, we would only be thinking of our next kill. If we could see like hawks, we would have eyes the size of tennis balls, scanning the Earth for a rabbit or a slow-moving pigeon. If we could fly like hawks, we would swoop close to the ground, barely skimming buildings in a muscular sprint. If we could live like hawks, there would be no worry or despair, just the pleasurable fatigue of a successful hunt, digestion in a quiet copse, rising hunger and the hunt once again.

But humans cannot think like hawks, so instead we project on to them our own characteristics. Which is how I come to find myself asking Wayne Davis of the Corby-based firm Avian Environmental Consultants whether he thinks he has a special bond with Rufus, his 15-year-old male Harris’s hawk. The 59-year-old Davis gives a creaky laugh at the thought. “The bond is just food, basically,” he says. “I’m beneficial to him. If he doesn’t actually catch anything, he still gets rewarded with food from me. He’s not coming back to me because he loves me or anything like that. It’s purely food.”

So, how does he think Rufus sees him, his partner of more than 15 years? “As an ally to assist his hunting,” Davis says. “Without being derogatory,” says Davis, with the infinite patience that has defined his 48-year career as a falconer, “it’s quite basic, really. All he wants to do is hunt and kill things. Same as a lion or a tiger. If he ever caught a pigeon and I couldn’t find him, he’d eat it, and I wouldn’t be able to get him back for two days. He’d go and sit in a tree and ignore me. Because if he finds his own food, he doesn’t need me.” A hawk is a hawk is a hawk. And what a fine hawk Rufus is.

As soon as they see him, the pigeons recognise he’s a threat to their existence, and move away

Wayne Davis

I meet him at 7am on day five of the The Championships, Wimbledon. Ground staff are jet-washing the stands, while a man judders a lawn-mower across the famously lush grass of the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s Centre Court. Outside, yawning ballboys and girls swipe their passes through security turnstiles. Dapper men in straw boaters queue alongside women in floral dresses and cork heels, waiting for the gates to open at 10am.

In contrast, Davis wears frayed cords, worn boots and a khaki shoulder bag. His pocket is full of freshly defrosted quail. He scans Centre Court for Rufus and eventually spots him lurking in the gloom of the cheap seats, facing the royal box. “HAIII!” he roars, meat held loosely in his green suede hawking glove, and Rufus announces himself in a rush of air and the beating of wings. He is a walnut brown that glimmers russet under the cloudless sky. When he approaches, swooping low over empty leather seats, the bells attached to his talons jangle like a Christmas sleigh.

Wayne Davis and Rufus the Harris hawk
Masters at work … Wayne Davis and Rufus the Harris’s hawk. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Davis has arrived with his hawk at 5am to begin their day’s work – as he has done every Wimbledon for the past 15 years. Davis calls it “environmental control”: the all-important practice of scaring away pigeons and gulls that might otherwise disrupt play or foul the court or the spectators’ seats. “It’s the natural way to do it,” says Davis. “All you’re doing is utilising the food chain. Pigeons can’t get used to a predator, otherwise it’s the end of their DNA line, because they get eaten. As soon as they see him, they recognise he’s a threat to their existence, and move away.” But professional falconers such as Davis appear to be part of a dying trade. Drones are increasingly being used to scare away birds at vineyards and airports. Ultrasonic bird repellers pipe out noise at council recycling sites. Other innovations include mechanical devices or so-called frightkites, which are designed to move in the wind like a peregrine falcon.

At this time of the morning, the sky is orange and pink. Rufus and Wayne take up a vantage point on the astroturfed roof of the broadcasting centre, where later, broadcasters will deliver slick pieces to camera as players grunt and thwack beneath them on Wimbledon’s 18 grass courts. This is Davis’s favourite time of day, before he gets swarmed by well-wishing members of the public, all keen for a photograph with Wimbledon’s famous hawk. (For a while, officials even gave Rufus his own photocard pass: job title, bird scarer.) “It’s lovely to go up on the roof and watch the sunrise,” he says.

Rufus swoops low over the near-silent club. He watches for pigeons atop Centre Court’s retractable roof, unveiled in 2015 at a reported cost of £70m. Hawks skim low over the ground in search of a quick kill, unlike falcons, which circle from up on high, chase prey for miles and wait for their moment. Rufus is sleek and lightweight, a fleet-winged killer at 1lb 6oz (624g). Davis weighs him daily. “If his weight goes up too much,” he says, “he doesn’t need to hunt, because he’s very energy conscious.”

But Davis has kept Rufus’s weight low to keep the edge on his hunger, and so Rufus swings over the courts, retreating out of sight to take up a position on this court, or in this tree, or on the roof of an adjacent housing estate. Davis monitors him on a GPS tracker, but if Rufus wanted to vanish into the clear London sky, he could. Sometimes he does. “Three days is the longest he’s disappeared,” says Davis. “He goes out and catches one rabbit, and then another rabbit, and he just carries on. You have to wait and follow and try to intervene at a point when he’s hungry.” When this happens at Wimbledon, Davis sleeps in his van, and hopes that Rufus will tire.

Hawks are the most perfectly designed creatures. Just absolutely sublime

Wayne Davis

When I first approached Davis for an interview, his daughter Imogen described her father as “like a real-life Kes, but without the sad ending”. (In the 1969 Ken Loach film, 15-year-old working-class schoolboy Billy Casper trains a wild kestrel, before his abusive half-brother kills the bird in a fit of pique.) Davis grew up in a working-class family in Corby, the son of a steelworker turned canal-boat builder. His childhood was spent roaming the ancient woodlands that surround the Northamptonshire industrial town. “I didn’t really fit in at school,” says Davis, “because I didn’t want to be tied down to a desk. I wanted to be out doing things. I found it claustrophobic.”

Instead, Davis would go birdwatching and search for snakes. Once he brought home what he thought was a water vole, but turned out to be a rat. (His mother screamed.) He was 11 when he found a baby kestrel, which he named Finnigan. Finnigan slept on the end of Davis’s bed. He took Falconry, by Gilbert Blaine, out of his local library so many times, he had to ask the librarian for permission.

Rufus keeps an eye on Centre Court
Best seat in the house … Rufus keeps an eye on Centre Court. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

The falconer, writes Blaine, “must have patience, diligence, and even temper, and other similar virtues. He must acquire a curious skill in practice, be light of hand and foot – no heavy-fisted lout could ever make a falconer – but when all is said and done, the true falconer is born, not made … ask any keen and proficient falconer what first made him take up the sport. He will probably reply that he does not know, but that he was always, as far back as he can remember, fond of hawks.” When asked what drew him to Finnigan, Davis thinks for a long time. “The thing that got me,” he says, “ever since I was a child, is that they are the most perfectly designed creatures. Just absolutely sublime.”

Davis trained Finnigan in his bedroom, using a hood. The hood has a dampening effect, inhibiting the bird’s stress responses. Slowly, he reduced Finnigan’s time under the hood, until the kestrel learned not to fear him. Then he introduced him to the lure, a length of string attached to an imitation of a prey bird, that the falconer swings about, to stimulate the hawk. “I was so enthralled by the whole process,” Davis says. “I loved being with him. It’s not just the bond I had with him. With all predators, you have a degree of respect for them, whether they’re a lion or a tiger or a black panther. They have a majesty about them, being head of the food chain.”

You can’t train a hawk, not really. “You work with them. A hawk isn’t like a dog. You can’t dominate it. It’s the most unique relationship. I’ve never known a bond between animals and humans like it.” The hawk learns to tolerate the human, and not to be fearful; the human learns to think more like a hawk. When Rufus absconds, for example, Davis needs to think about where he will be. He looks up at the sky; at adjacent buildings. A hawk will shelter out of the wind, in the sunlight, up on high. That is his most likely bet.

When Finnigan was free-flying, they would go down to the school playing fields before lessons began, and spend hours together. His classmates began to call him Casper. Their first job together was at a medieval banquet: Davis walked around with Finnigan on his shoulder. Later, Davis set up his own business, aged 22, after successfully using his cast of peregrine falcons to get rid of a pigeon outbreak at a local flour mill. Finnigan lived for 15 years. Towards the end, he stopped being able to hunt. His eyes started to close. Davis buried him at Rockingham Castle, near where he was born. “When Finnigan died,” he says, “it was a wrench.”

If you consistently fly a drone at a bird, and it doesn’t actually attack it, the bird just dismisses it. It’s so basic

Wayne Davis

Now Davis has four birds that he regularly flies. There is Socrates, a peregrine falcon; Seth, a prairie falcon; Rufus; and Horace, also a Harris’s hawk. They are busy all year round: in addition to working at Wimbledon, Davis scares away birds from Lord’s cricket ground, Canary Wharf, football stadiums and British airports. (His work at airports in particular can be lifesaving: bird strikes are a leading cause of fatal aviation crashes internationally.) Davis was there for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations, watching the great and good step out of their vehicles at St Paul’s.

He maintains this thriving practice, despite the encroachment of technological solutions, set on eradicating a millennia-old art – falconry is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 2000BC – and replacing it with cheap drones, or flapping kites. Davis is scathing about such innovations. “Bottom line is that they don’t work,” he says from the roof of the broadcasting terrace, as beside us crews rig up cameras and lights and anchors rehearse their pieces-to-camera. “If you consistently fly a drone at a bird, and it doesn’t actually attack it, the bird just dismisses it. It’s so basic, and fundamental. If it’s not a threat to them, they just ignore it.”

Rufus the hawk
All in a morning’s work … Rufus admires the clear skies over Wimbledon. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

As the morning wears on, Rufus grows weary. He stops responding to Davis’s commands, and spends more time lurking in the shadows of Centre Court. His head snaps about in 180-degree rotations like a sprinkler on a suburban lawn, but his wings remain immobile. When quail will not summon him any more, Davis returns Rufus to his van, where Seth squawks belligerently in the driver’s seat, besides an open window. It doesn’t matter, anyhow: their work is done for the day.

They drive away past lines of punters, some of whom have been queueing since before dawn to watch Novak Djokovic take to Centre Court that afternoon. Later that day, the current men’s champion throws the ball up in a graceful, soaring arc. A thwack, a thud and a roar from the crowd. Up high, the pigeons stay away. They know better, and so play can begin.

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