From his lawn perch, Taima fans out his impressive 5-foot wingspan, soaking his black and cream-colored feathers in the warm weather.
"Look at him sunning himself," says owner and master falconer David Knutson.
It's one of the last days of summer, and Knutson's West Plains backyard is brimming with animal activity — various falcons resting on their perches, hunting dogs barking in the distance, a gray cat napping on a nearby deck chair. Here at home, Taima is just one of 26 other birds, but at CenturyLink Field, he's a star.
For 10 seasons, the African augur hawk has led the Seattle Seahawks onto their home field — more often than not to victory, as the team has won 70.8 percent of home games since moving to their new stadium in 2002. Released by Knutson's wife Robin in the Seahawks tunnel, Taima flies through smoke, noisemakers, and scantily clad cheerleaders to Knutson's gloved hand.
Since the Seahawks' Super Bowl beatdown of the Denver Broncos, Taima's profile has soared. In February, the Washington state House of Representatives approved a resolution recognizing his accomplishments as a live mascot for the football team, declaring: "He has become a uniting element to Washington state, bringing Eastern Washington and Western Washington together during Seahawks games."
Everywhere he goes, people want to touch him and take pictures with him — including, says Knutson, members of Congress.
"That's the draw, why he's so popular. He doesn't go away, he's real," Knutson, 57, says.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area (yes, Knutson used to be a 49ers fan), he's been smitten with birds of prey since he was 12 years old, owning his first at 14. Little did he know the hunting hobby would turn into his livelihood. As owner and president of KlearView Resources, Inc., he's been contracted by Fairchild Air Force Base, among others, for the past 18 years to remove birds and wildlife from the flight line.
"I use falcons and dogs to scare problem birds away," explains Knutson, who also breeds falcons. "I bring an unnatural amount of predators."
In 2003, Knutson was contacted by the Seahawks organization. Team owner Paul Allen, who took over in 1997, envisioned a live hawk flying at every home game.
"I just thought, 'I'm a sports fan. If nothing else, I'll talk to them,'" Knutson recalls. "But there was no way I would ever move over there."
He drove to Seattle, and in front of about 30 suits, demonstrated with birds he had.
"I figured they'd say, 'We need you to have a bird go through a ring of fire,'" he says. But that never happened. Instead, they asked him what he could do. So he went into an elaborate description that included a heartbeat played loudly through the stadium, and a bird flying out of the tunnel in front of the team. They loved it.
"I called Robin after the meeting and said, 'I have no idea what I just did,' because I didn't have a hawk that could do this," Knutson says.
A hawk named Faith filled Taima's role for the first two seasons, but at that point Knutson was running out with the bird, which wasn't the desired effect. To train Taima, who came to them in early 2005, Robin would open the horse-barn doors, stand in the back like a tunnel and have him fly to Knutson on his second-level balcony of their home.
"The point was to add chaos into it and make the flight path harder than it ever is at the game," Knutson says.
At games, Taima simply blocks all the noise and fans out, and for the most part remains calm. But if he wanted to, there's nothing stopping him from flying away.
Taima nearly missed February's Super Bowl. In the Seahawks' previous Super Bowl appearance in 2006, the bird was not invited, but this year, after the Broncos' horse mascot was allowed on the field, Taima got the green light. He received celebrity treatment, including his own hotel room. Not everything was perfect: Pyrotechnics meant his owners chose to send Taima out of the tunnel before the cameras were rolling, but Knutson describes the experience of being on the winning field as one of the most thrilling moments of his life.
Only seven teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls (the Steelers have done it twice); this year, the Seahawks attempt to become the eighth.
"Anything but winning the Super Bowl again this year will be a disappointment for our team," Knutson says. ♦
Name: Taima (means "thunder")
Wingspan: Nearly 5 feet
Weight: 2 pounds, 6 ounces
Species: African augur hawk