The Celebrity Who Has Been Causing A Daily Flap At Wimbledon

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Posing for photographs for adoring fans has become as much a part of Rufus the Hawk's daily routine as chasing pigeons.

LONDON -- Two minutes into the conversation, he stretches and turns his head as if the very act of sitting still for an interview is a royal pain, the only thing missing from his celebrity persona a pair of Ray-Bans and a cigarette.

Two minutes later, he turns on the charm, and it is impossible not to fall prey to his magnetism.

"I do the talking for him," says Imogen Davis, the 28-year-old whose Twitter profile identifies her as his personal assistant. "He has 7,000 followers on Twitter, a Facebook page, all of that, and so many people engaged with him.

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As long as Rufus sticks to his ideal flying weight, pigeons looking to munch grass on Centre Court don't stand a chance.

"It was never anything we would have ever, ever, ever imagined in a million years."

They never thought he would be kidnapped, either. But Rufus the Hawk has had an adventurous seven-year reign as the resident watch bird of Wimbledon, chasing away the dreaded pigeons on Centre Court and throwing a general fear into all annoying feathered creatures who dare fly over the All England Club.

In the summer of 2012, however, that was all thrown into peril as Rufus was taken from the back of Davis' car on a private drive in Wimbledon Village, a crime treated as breaking news on British networks as well as something of a national emergency.

"It was huge, huge," Davis said. "It was just awful. Really, really bad. ... We had other birds, but it's not like you could just get a replacement, because he's Rufus. He's part of the family."

More on that in a bit.

Davis, one of six children of Donna and Wayne, left her work as a freelance journalist and joined the family business raising and training hawks and falcons after her father suffered a stroke three and a half years ago.

"You didn't realize anything was unusual [about the family trade] until you went to school and you had friends over and they're like, 'What's with [all the birds]?' We just thought it was the norm," she said.

The family's birds "provide environmentally friendly bird control," patrolling the Wimbledon grounds throughout the year, and also have been hired to scare away pigeons at the 2012 Summer Olympics and at Westminster Abbey.

The pigeons apparently find grass seed delicious, particularly at a place like Wimbledon, with its irresistible meticulously maintained lawns. "They're like, 'We love Wimbledon. They keep giving us a picnic,' Davis said. "It's like complete nectar to them."

During the watch-bird training process, the wild birds are attached to a thin string, their optimum flying weight calculated. They are taught to go after food with their appetite level controlled.

Rufus' optimum flying weight is 1 pound, 6 ounces.

"So I know if I fly him at around that weight, he'll go and hunt [the pigeons] and shoo them away, but he's not going to be so hungry that he'll exert that extra energy to grab one and fill himself up," Davis said.

"If I fly him and he's too heavy, he'll just kind of chill on the roof and not be very interested in chasing any pigeons or anything. So you've got to just know the optimum weight and work with that."

Why chase away the pigeons at all?

Well, first, they especially like to roost in the rafters of Centre Court, where they apparently also found tennis irresistible before the Davis family and Rufus' predecessor, Hamish the Hawk, were hired in 2000.

We had other birds, but it's not like you could just get a replacement, because he's Rufus. He's part of the family.
Imogen Davis

"The one I remember was when [Pete] Sampras was playing and he was literally batting them off the baseline," Davis said. "They just don't get the message. They're just so used to humans, and they're like, 'We don't care.' They've made it their home, so they don't know if it's the Championships or the middle of December."

Without Hamish and now Rufus, the pigeons would start breeding and be out of control, Davis said.

Fortunately for pigeons, they are much faster than hawks; otherwise, Rufus would have a huge wing up on the competition.

This routine worked perfectly until 2012, when Davis, in charge of business at Wimbledon for the first time with her mother, Donna, after her father fell ill, had to deal with Rufus' kidnapping.

"It was devastating," Donna said.

With the help of the police and bird watchers everywhere, the search and investigation was on. But without Rufus' radio transmitter, which is removed at night, hopes dimmed.

"We had to straight away accept that he was taken and there was no way we were getting him back," she said. "And then we had to think, 'Why had they done it? How had they done it? And for what purpose?

"Are they going to sell him? Because you can buy your own Harris's hawk for 250 pounds. And to have an older one, there's really not any need."

It also occurred to the family that it could be animal-protection fanatics who were under the mistaken impression that Rufus was being abused.

But three days after he was taken, the thieves contacted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and told them they had left Rufus in his traveling box on Wimbledon common.

Donna saw the news on Twitter.

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Imogen Davis marvels at Rufus' celebrity status at Wimbledon.

"I was screaming," she said.

"They must have had a change of heart and realized they couldn't really do much with him," Imogen said. "To be honest, all I had been thinking about was who, why, what had they done to him. And then once we got him back and he was fine, all of that kind of went away. I was grateful that whoever it was had a change of heart."

"It was almost like, 'Thank you very much,'" Donna said.

Now Rufus doesn't leave the family's sight. And since then, Rufus' celebrity has soared higher than he does.

"It has become part of his job," Imogen said. "It's absolutely unreal. He'll finish flying at 9 in the morning, and up until like 1 in the afternoon, we're doing media. The rest of the year we're just standing on roofs on our own all day."

On this day, Rufus sports a Wimbledon-themed purple-and-green, custom-made (what else?) hat and cops an attitude.

His personal assistant laughs.

"He's like, 'No pictures, please,'" she said.

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