To most of us, Centre Court is the temple of lawn tennis. To the pigeon population, the showcase court also represents a place of pilgrimage – the Centre Court structure equates to a five-star giant pigeon loft, with copious supplies of grass seed, lots of intricate roosting spaces created by the new roof girders, and an open sky. It is therefore a minor miracle that there is rarely a pestiferous pigeon to be seen either to plague the pristine setting or disrupt play. This is due to the daily 6am to 10am circling action of Rufus the Harris Hawk, who is such an important part of the Wimbledon family he has his own security photocard pass (job title: Bird Scarer), his own twitter account (@RufusTheHawk) and a vociferous fan club.
A sighting of Rufus on his handler’s cuffed gloved inspires more ooohs and aaahs than your average winning shot after the tensest of rallies. Rufus is a very handsome bird with a striking yellow beak, intelligent eyes, dark brown plumage, chestnut shoulders, wing linings and thighs, and white on the base of the tip of his tail. With his leather hood (to blinker him from distractions when not in hunting mode), ID rings and silver bells on his legs (in case he disappears from sight), there is a touch of the Johnny Depp/Captain Jack Sparrow about his demeanour.
“He gets so much lovely attention,” says his handler Imogen Davies. “He’s very responsive, very trusting, a great ‘people bird’. People tweet him and I’ve heard some say, when they’re asked what Wimbledon means to them, ‘Pimms, strawberries and cream, and Rufus!’ ”
Imogen, 25, has joined the family firm - Avian Control System – founded by her father Wayne. Rufus and his fellow high-flying raptors have been working with Wayne at the All England Club since 2000, and also ensure Westminster Abbey, three sites of the Institute of Cancer Research hospitals and the 600ft Barclays Bank tower in Canary Wharf remain untroubled by pigeons. It is not just a Grand Slam assignment, it’s a year-round responsibility. And quite tough days. Except during The Championships, when he is lodged in Wimbledon Village, Rufus travels from Northamptonshire to start his flying roles by 6am. As a hawk he is motivated by food so flies hungry, often going on from site to another. Then he’s fed up for the day and allowed to rest.
Occasionally a rogue pigeon swoops onto court – as one did yesterday during the Caroline Wozniacki and Tamira Paszek marathon match, reducing Centre Court to amused giggles. “You do get the odd one. Cleaning is the analogy I like to use,” says Wayne. “You’ve got to try to keep on top of it. If we just came in at the beginning of The Championships and found 200 resident pigeons, we’d be up against it. You’ve got to keep them away all year-round. Rufus is particularly suited to Wimbledon. As a woodland hawk, he is good at weaving in and out of the courts. He’s very agile at clearing the spaces up in Centre Court’s retractable roof. He’s very effective at controlling that niche. It’s really applied biology, picking the right bird for the right environment.”
It was a novel idea pre-2000 when stray pigeons often swooped on to the courts, distracting players and disrupting matches at crucial points. But Wayne’s wife, Donna, was watching Wimbledon on television and, seeing the problem, got in touch with the AELTC to suggest professional bird-scaring. He came down for a chat, and the rest, as they say, is history. Imogen, one of six children, says they all now want to be involved. “I think we’re all going to breed our own birds and set up rival businesses to Dad!”