Arts & Life
5:06 pm
Sat July 5, 2014

Pigeons Fly In Fear As Rufus The Hawk Guards Wimbledon's Grass

Originally published on Sat July 5, 2014 7:14 pm

At Wimbledon, maintaining the iconic grass courts is as important as the tennis matches themselves.

Every day during the Championships, Centre Court is cut to a precise measurement of 10 millimeters and the white chalk lines are re-drawn.

Groundskeepers use perennial ryegrass, which is perfect for a tennis match. It's also a delicacy for Wimbledon's unwanted guests: pigeons.

"This grass seed is the most delicious food for them, and they think it's just been put out as a picnic for them," says 27-year-old falconer Imogen Davis.

She knows all about Wimbledon's pigeons. For years, they've been interrupting matches and causing havoc, and it's her job to keep them off the court.

Her secret weapon soars above Wimbledon's Centre Court. He's a 1-pound, 6-ounce hawk named Rufus.

"Rufus is a 6-year-old male Harris hawk and he has the most beautiful chestnut- and tan-colored feathers," Davis says.

Just the sight of his 40-inch wingspan is enough to keep pigeons out of the stadium's rafters.

"The way we work with Rufus is that he sees us as part of his family and part of his group," Davis says. "He flies around and shoos any pigeons away and returns to us for his reward, which is usually chicken or quail. He has quite refined taste."

He's also become quite the celebrity: Rufus is the star in a new ad for the beer Stella Artois.

"I can't stop watching it," Davis says. "I'm completely blown away by it. And we're so lucky because we're a really small family business and it's all lead to Rufus and us having worldwide exposure. I can't believe it."

But two years ago, Rufus' career almost came to an end when he was kidnapped.

"He'd been out having his bath in the garden, and then we put him away, and [at] about 11:00 at night, Rufus was stolen," Davis says.

Word spread that Wimbledon's hawk had disappeared.

"The press attention went a little bit crazy," she says. "We were doing interview after interview after interview. It was unbelievable the amount of attention it received."

So much attention, Davis says, it probably spooked the thieves. Four days later, a call was made from a payphone to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The voice said a bird was left at Wimbledon Common.

"Luckily, we were reunited," Davis says.

Rufus was found unharmed inside his traveling box.

Wimbledon wraps up Sunday, but for Rufus and Imogen Davis, work for next season has just begun. They'll be back at Wimbledon every week of the year, in rain and snow, patrolling for pigeons.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And now to that other major tournament that's going on right now - Wimbledon - where maintaining the iconic grass courts is as important as the tennis itself. Every day, center court is cut to a precise measurement of 10 millimeters and the white chalk lines are redrawn. Groundskeepers use Perennial ryegrass, which of course is perfect for a tennis match. It's also a delicacy for Wimbledon's unwanted guests - pigeons.

IMOGEN DAVIS: This grass seed is the most delicious food for them, and they think it's just been put out as a picnic for them.

MCEVERS: Imogen Davis knows all about Wimbledon's pigeons, who for years have been interrupting matches and causing havoc. It's her job to keep them off the court. Her secret weapon - a one-pound, six-ounce hawk named Rufus, soaring above Wimbledon's center court.

DAVIS: Rufus is a six-year-old male Harris Hawk. And he has the most beautiful chestnut and tan colored feathers.

MCEVERS: Apparently just the sight of Rufus' 40-inch wingspan is enough to keep pigeons out of the stadium's rafters.

DAVIS: He flies around and shoos any pigeons away and returns to us for his reward, which is usually chicken or quail. He has quite refined taste.

MCEVERS: And he's kind of a celebrity. He's the star in this ad for the beer Stella Artois.

(SOUNDBITE OF STELLA ARTOIS COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello pigeons, my name is Rufus. I'm not like you. I'm a bird of prey.

DAVIS: I can't stop watching it. It's all lead to kind of Rufus and us having worldwide exposure. I can't believe it.

MCEVERS: But then, two years ago, something happened. Rufus was bird napped.

DAVIS: He'd been out having his bath in the garden. And then we put him away. And it was about 11 o'clock at night - Rufus was stolen.

MCEVERS: Word got out that Rufus was gone.

DAVIS: We were doing interview after interview, after interview. And it was unbelievable the amount of attention it received.

MCEVERS: So much attention, Davis says, it probably spooked the bird-nappers. Four days later, a call was made to an animal shelter from a pay phone. The voice said a bird had been left, not far from Wimbledon Stadium.

DAVIS: Luckily, we were reunited.

MCEVERS: Rufus was found inside his traveling box, unharmed. Wimbledon wraps up tomorrow, but for Rufus and his handler, Imogen Davis, work for next season has just begun. They'll be back at Wimbledon every week of the year in rain and snow, patrolling for pigeons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.