By Thomas Clouse The Spokesman-Review
SPOKANE — David Knutson pitched an idea a decade ago, and since then, he has put the “hawk” in the Seattle Seahawks.
Starting in 2005, Knutson’s wife, Robin, has led the Seahawks onto CenturyLink Field with the release of Taima, an augur hawk, who flies past 12-foot spires of flame, 32 cheerleaders, booming pyrotechnics and the occasional wayward referee to the padded hand of David Knutson.
“It’s chaotic, but he pulls it off. He could fly right out of the stadium if he wants,” said Knutson, a West Plains resident. “But he doesn’t. In this loud stadium crazy with fans, that’s part of his life. He’s learned that nothing bad ever happens.”
When Knutson was 12, his father took him to see a double feature: “True Grit,” starring John Wayne, and “My Side of the Mountain,” a story of a boy in the Canadian wilderness who trained a peregrine falcon to hunt for him.
“The lights went on. I was just introduced to something. I was going to be involved,” Knutson said.
He got his first license and a kestrel falcon when he was 14. “Now, I breed falcons,” he said.
Eventually, Knutson, 56, turned his passion into government contracts. Since 1996, he has used his expertise with birds of prey to make sure that war planes at Fairchild Air Force Base — and other bases in Washington and California — don’t hit birds on takeoffs and landings.
Knutson also contracts to provide predator sweeps to vineyards and fruit growers, who often lose thousands of dollars worth of crops to birds every year.
In addition to falcons, Knutson also takes his English pointer dogs to flush any birds near the runways.
“I bring an unnatural number of predators to that area,” he said. “Killing isn’t the answer. What we want to do is change the culture. We have to show them it’s not safe to eat here at this time of day.”
He often uses gyrfalcons, which are the largest of all falcon species. He also breeds Peale’s falcons, the largest subspecies of the peregrine falcon. Both live in in Alaska and northern Canada.
“A gyrfalcon is one of the fastest birds in the world,” Knutson said. “But they can get sick easy and injure themselves easily.”
Knutson’s exploits as a pest controller got the notice of the Seattle Seahawks ownership.
He was invited in 2003 to a roomful of suits to explain what he could do with a trained hawk as part of the pregame show.
“All along I kept thinking they would tell me what they want, like having the hawk fly through a flaming hoop,” he said.
Then-Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke stood up and said, “The boss (Paul Allen) wants to have a hawk on game days. He wants to start a tradition. What do you think you could do?”
Knutson said he took the crew onto the field and described a bass-fueled heart beat thumping as a hawk came flying through smoke out of the tunnel and onto the field to lead the players. The spectacle would be displayed prominently on the huge video screens.
“They started saying, ‘Great’ and slapping each other on the back,” he said. “I’m really putting my neck on the line. I didn’t have a bird to do it.”
In 2003 and 2004, Knutson ran out with the team with Faith, a Lanner falcon, on his wrist. “She flew around. I’d have her chase a lure. It was pretty dramatic, but not what we had envisioned.”
The name “Seahawk” is a misnomer. There is no such bird. The closest actual bird would be an osprey.
Knutson’s original plan was to find a couple injured ospreys at a recovery center and train the birds to fly out of the tunnel in front of the Seahawks. He then would have donated the money he’s paid by the organization — he declined to disclose the amount — to further birds-of-prey recovery efforts.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shot down the idea, essentially barring Knutson from using any indigenous birds of prey for commercial purposes.
“I understand what they were saying, but I don’t think they understood what we were trying to do,” he said.
In the winter of 2003, Knutson ordered an augur hawk, a species of hawk indigenous to Africa, from the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis. The augur hawk is a large, “pretty level-headed” bird that has markings similar to the osprey.
But that spring, his hatchling died. In 2004, he ordered two more.
“They sent (Taima) to me on an airplane in a dog crate” in early 2005, he said. “We began from there.”
Knutson began training Taima to deal with chaos.
He took him to Seahawks practices in Cheney to acclimate the bird to people running around. He took Taima to Fairchild, where helicopters were doing takeoffs. He took him to rodeos as his wife competed in barrel racing.
“I needed the bird to not leave the stadium,” he said. “I didn’t want to be that guy yelling, ‘Come back.’ “
So Knutson started having Robin take Taima into their barn and have him fly through the doors, and sometimes through obstacles, to train him to do the same thing under changing conditions.
“I needed to train him to know that it’s crazy but nobody ever attacks him, so he can get through chaos,” he said.
Each time Taima completes the task, he gets a bit of quail meat.
“When we do our flying at the games, it’s dinner time. That’s when he gets to eat,” he said.
But Taima needs more than the promise of a meal to perform.
“I have to show some value in the partnership. We can’t make him do anything,” Knutson said. “I keep him safe. I keep him warm. All his food comes from me.”
At game time, Robin goes into the tunnel with Taima on her arm.
If Taima could see David, he would try to flap his way to his partner and possibly tire himself out.
So Robin stands with her back to the field to block Taima’s view.
Robin Knutson always has a Seahawk staffer nearby to give her the go-ahead. She then turns and Taima looks out for David, who holds an electronic signal.
As soon as he sees the signal, Taima is off and the Seahawks thunder onto the field.
“I’m at the 45-yard line. He has to fly through towers of flame on both sides. He’s got to pick me out,” he said.
Taima, now 8, has never failed to perform.
Taima has had countless interactions with fans and players who pet him. He’s also posed for thousands of photos.
.”The worst thing that ever happened was a beer got poured on him from a pretty young lady who leaned over to pet him,” Knutson said.