LONDON (Reuters) - Male tennis players from the United States are almost as rare as hen's teeth at Wimbledon this year, but a hawk native to North and South America definitely rules the roost when it comes to clearing the championship courts of pigeons.
Every morning at dawn, a Harris hawk named Rufus, with his distinctive yellow-hued beak, patrols the skies over the tennis complex in southwest London.
The hawk's job is to scare the living daylights out of the pigeons who not so many years ago occasionally interrupted play as they strolled around the courts, searching for food and doing what pigeons do.
For Rufus, pigeons are food, though the bird's handlers and trainers, Wayne Davis, his wife Donna and their daughter Imogen, do their best to keep Rufus's appetite balanced so the hawk will scare the pigeons but not eat them.
That is part of the art of falconry as it has been practiced for more than 2,000 years, said Wayne Davis, although he cannot guarantee that Rufus will not occasionally go for the kill.
"Thousands of years of evolution have dictated that's what he should do," Davis said, speaking over the phone from the family home in Northamptonshire, about what could happen if Rufus spots a pigeon and is feeling a big peckish.
"We haven't evolved a hawk to catch things for our own purposes -- we're just utilising its natural abilities," he said.
Rufus has become something of an avian star at Wimbledon, his picture taken by countless photographers and television crews. He even has his own Twitter account @RufusTheHawk.
As a family that makes its living from falconry, the Davises are delighted that one of this year's big literary hit books is "H Is for Hawk", British writer Helen Macdonald's tale of how she trained a goshawk as a form of therapy to help her deal with the death of her father.
"It's absolutely fantastic," Donna Davis said of Macdonald's book this week as she and Imogen loaded Rufus into the car after his morning patrol.
"I just thought she really captured the sense of training a goshawk, it is so difficult."
Having started bird training, with kestrels, at the age of 10, Davis does not recommend falconry to anyone who thinks it would be nice to have a hawk along with the family dog or cat.
He particularly sympathises with Macdonald, whom he met at a falconry conference in Dubai last year, for her travails.
"Goshawks are notoriously...finely-tuned. Anything would scare them, they're very on edge, they're very difficult to train," Davis said.
Rufus is "very placid in comparison to a goshawk", Davis said, although the pigeons might not agree.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)