LONDON — Like so many big stars in sports and entertainment art — Pele, Cher, Beckham, Prince, Meatloaf, Magic, and the like — he goes by only one name: Rufus.
As headliners go, though, Rufus is rather small, his weight rarely fluctuating more than an ounce or two. Anything more can be all kinds of trouble for such an elite performer.
“Oh, if his weight goes to a pound-eight he might just sit there, one leg up, and barely move,’’ mused his handler, 49-year-old Wayne Davis, who has had Rufus under his wing, often eating out of the palm of his hand at Wimbledon, these last four years. “He might just fly up there under the canopy, stay perched for hours . . . there’s really no moving him if his belly’s full.’’
As Davis spoke of his fine-tuned star, his daughter, Imogen, 25, nodded in agreement. She is Rufus’s co-handler, and often arrives with him to begin work just after daybreak each morning during The Championships at the All England Club. Rufus is a Harris hawk, one of a half-dozen birds of prey the Davises keep, and unquestionably the hawk of the walk when it comes to keeping the club virtually pigeon free during the world’s No. 1 tennis event. With Olympic tennis to be staged here later this month, the Davises and their prized Rufus are in for extra fly-overtime around the famed club’s 40-plus emerald acres.
“I think he likes all the press attention he’s been getting,’’ said Imogen, who also manages, yes, Rufus’s Twitter account, @RufusTheHawk. “He’s very tolerant, poised. To tell you the truth, I think he almost enjoys it all.’’
For a span of some 72 hours that began late in this year’s first week of Wimbledon, Rufus and the Davises received far more attention than anyone would desire. Rufus was stolen, birdnapped, clipped from the back of the Davises’ car while resting in his travel crate, thus setting off the mysterious case of a bird of prey that was preyed upon by an unknown bird burglar.
The cops were called, an investigation launched, a case worthy of Chief Inspector L’Oiseau (with apologies to Peter Sellers). British TV stations, newspapers, radio stations, and Internet sites for three days carried the travails of Wimbledon’s missing hawk. UK pigeons far and wide rejoiced. Rufus hadn’t flown the coop, he’d been clipped, from the driveway of the nearby home where the Davises stay during the tournament.
“Just horrific,’’ recalled Imogen Davis, fresh from wrapping up Rufus’s four-hour morning tour of the grounds Friday morning. “If he just flies off, well, you can do something about that — maybe you see what direction he went, or follow his transmitter. But he was resting, with his transmitter off, and we couldn’t actively do anything to try to find him. Every time I told the story to the press, even now . . . it’s like I had a stone stuck in my throat. It was really, really horrible.’’
All turned out fine, thankfully, when the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals received a call last Sunday night that someone nearby found the crate, with Rufus inside, and the pigeon chaser extraordinaire was quickly retrieved by an RSPCA agent.
Local police have a few leads, according to the Davises, but headed to the weekend the bird burglar remained at large.
“We just wanted him back,’’ said a relieved Imogen Davis. “After that, well, caring about anything else — what happened, why, who did it — all of that went out the window.’’
Other than a slightly tender leg, Rufus came out of the ordeal with feathers unfettered. He was back on the job some 24 hours after being placed back in safekeeping with Imogen and her dad. His media interviews have diminished considerably, but he remains a fun story subject, and easy to spot, even on busy days like Sunday, when 30,000 or more fans will stream to the SW19 grounds to see Andy Murray and Roger Federer battle for the men’s singles title.
Like all official Wimbledon workers, Rufus has been issued a printed credential, detailing his job description, “Bird Chaser.’’ Imogen Davis usually carries her charge’s ID in one of her jacket pockets, just in case anyone wonders why she is walking around with a handsome, 22-ounce brown hawk perched on the leather glove she wears on one hand.
“He doesn’t really know his name’s Rufus,’’ she offered. “It’s the sound of our voice that he responds to. Someone asked why we didn’t name him Harry? Ugh. Harry? For a hawk? Really, c’mon . . . ’’
The Davises run what sounds like a very active year-round hawking business, Avian Environmental Consultants, out of their home in Corby, Northamptonshire, a couple of hours north of London. They use their birds, including two hawks and four falcons, to keep government buildings, hospitals, and commercial property free of ever-intrusive pigeons.
According to Wayne Davis, the All England Club first employed his birds’ services a dozen years ago when pigeons strutted around like they owned the joint.
“It wasn’t uncommon,’’ noted Wayne Davis, “to see pigeons on the courts during games — players would have to shoo them off the baseline.’’
Not with Rufus, credentialed “Bird Chaser’’ on the job. And before Rufus, the Davises had their faithful Hamish, another Harris hawk, chasing those dirty, non-dues-paying poachers off the premises. These days, Rufus makes his flyovers from 5:30 to about 9:30 a.m., then returns pre-dusk for another keen-eyed sweep, provided the day’s matches have been completed. Some pigeons remain, but most of them suffer badly from repetitive stress syndrome, the toll from constantly looking over their shoulder to see if Rufus has them in his crosshairs.
“Falconry’s been around 2,000 years, and it still works,’’ noted Wayne Davis. “With all the technology available today, it’s still the most effective way to answer the problem.’’
Meanwhile, the equally ancient art of thievery remains unsolved. But we hear Rufus is on the case.