West Plains man’s real-life ‘Seahawk’ opens football games
You might call David Knutson a walking cliché.
First, he turned his movie-inspired boyhood passion into a profession. His success in the latter got him noticed by some high-profile folks west of the Cascades. He pitched an idea a decade ago, and since then, Knutson 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.”
To understand how a species of hawk indigenous to Africa became the centerpiece of leading the Seahawks’ pregame show, you first have to know a little about Knutson.
When he 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. “I’ve gone no more than a year since then when I didn’t have a bird of prey,” he said. “Now, I breed falcons.”
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.
On Dec. 18, Knutson was monitoring the runways at Fairchild as four jets taxied out for takeoff. He saw a bald eagle fly over the tarmac. Instead of continuing onward, the national bird landed five feet from the takeoff runway.
“I immediately called the tower and informed them of the hazard and asked to get on the runway,” he said. “That’s a 15-to-20 pound bird with an eight-foot wingspan. That’s going to take out an engine.”
After a pause, the air traffic controller sent him after the eagle. Knutson drove his truck toward the eagle, which flew off toward Medical Lake.
When asked why he didn’t use a falcon, Knutson answered: “Chaos, mid-air combat. They may fight each other for 15 minutes right over the runway.”
The point of his job, he explained, is not to kill whatever critter or bird that wanders into Fairchild’s safety zone. It’s to educate them. In addition to falcons, Knutson also takes his English pointer dogs to flush any birds that decide to take refuge in the grass 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 inhospitable conditions in or near 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.”
Some of the intruders at Fairchild are seasonal, such as sea gulls, horned larks or swallows. Most see the falcons and get the idea to stay clear. But sometimes migratory birds, such as ducks and geese, don’t get the message and linger.
“If they don’t want to leave, they are going to get hit … at more than 200 miles per hour,” Knutson said, pointing out two female mallards and what looked like a pigeon in the back of his pickup.
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 down onto the field and verbally imagined 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 as the entire spectacle is displayed prominently on the huge video screens inside what is now CenturyLink Field.
“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.
Then in the winter of 2003, Knutson ordered an augur hawk 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 the process of 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.”
Well, almost. Knudson remembered one training session where he had Taima flying through a rock outcropping. At the same time, Knutson’s plump cat was playing with a mouse. Taima came soaring around the house, caught sight of the mouse and pounced on it. Taima swallowed the mouse despite a resentful swipe from the cat.
At Seahawks games, Taima sometimes takes off after a flying scrap of paper.
“It’s his natural instinct to chase,” Knutson said. “After he caught the paper, he realized it was nothing. But he reacted before he thought.”
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.
“She is an expert at his attitude,” Knutson said of his wife. “She knows how to keep him calm.”
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.
“There is a lot of education that needs to happen. I’ve found that it’s a fun way to show birds of prey,” Knutson said.
Taima has had countless interactions with fans and players who pet him. He’s also posed for thousands of photos without incident.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘What drugs do you give him? He’s so calm.’ “ Knutson said. “One person actually asked, ‘Do you clip his wings?’ Didn’t you just see him fly?”
Despite the occasional dumb question, fans have been respectful to Taima, he said.
“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. Taima “acted like someone drenched him. He shook his feathers to get it all off. But she still got a photo with him.”