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Friday, September 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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First hawk out of the tunnel

Seattle Times staff reporter

The plan was first hatched in 2003.

Wait.

That's a poor choice of words, since the bird flying around Qwest Field this season actually was hatched in 2005. But it was the culmination of a process that included everything from auditions to a four-figure deposit on an egg.

The result is Taima, and he flew out of the tunnel for the first time before Thursday night's Seahawks exhibition game, leading the players onto the field. His journey, however, was a lot longer than that. A pet project of sorts for the team's front office all the way up to team owner Paul Allen.

"I've been promising the boss for a good long while that the hawk will fly [out of the tunnel]," said Tod Leiweke, Seahawks CEO.

Pulling it off was Dave Knutson's job. He's a licensed falconer who lives halfway between Spokane and Cheney and has trained birds for 35 years. This will be his fourth year working with the Seahawks, a tenure that began with the most trusted of football institutions: a tryout.

"I remember spending a full day on a Saturday prior to a game, trying out three different birds," said John Rizzardini, the Seahawks' senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

They settled on one named Faith because of her calmness. She was at Seahawks games in 2003 and 2004.

"She worked great," Knutson said.

"She wasn't as big as we wanted, wasn't as robust." She also flew in circles and performed dives, spectacular to watch but not ideal for a stadium setting, and she couldn't be trained to fly out of the tunnel in front of the team.

This new bird offered a blank slate. He could be trained specifically for the stadium, but there are also strict limitations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits the use of native birds of prey for commercial purposes, so like Faith, the new bird couldn't be indigenous.

Knutson and the team settled on an augur hawk, native to Africa. A bird was hatched in 2004, but died after only a few weeks. The second was hatched last May, bred in captivity in Missouri. Knutson owns the bird, and the Seahawks pay him for appearances with the bird.

"The one thing we're absolutely certain of is he doesn't count against the salary cap," said Martha Fuller, the Seahawks' chief financial officer.

Good thing, because he's the only hawk trained to lead a team into a stadium known for deafening crowd noise.

"He's priceless right now," Knutson said.

Taima was full-grown in about two months. His wingspan is 5 feet, about twice that of Faith. He eats raw meat, but Knutson buys it frozen and processed and then thaws it, almost like a TV dinner for birds.

The bird was at every Seahawks home game last season, and flew back and forth in the end zone before games, but wasn't ready to lead the team out of the tunnel yet. Not until Thursday night.

Knutson's interest in training birds began with a movie he watched at age 12. He had his first falcon two years later, and today his birds are a business. He trains them to scare away certain types of birds that cause problems around airfields and agricultural areas.

Knutson estimated he is one of about 100 falconers in the state. For every Seahawks game, Knutson drives the hawk west, affixing a hood over the bird so he relaxes during the drive, poised on a perch in the back of Knutson's canopied truck.

The bird is so calm on the sideline that fans have asked Knutson whether the hawk is drugged, if his wings are clipped or if his beak is taped shut. The answer is none of the above. Taima is just one well-behaved bird who allows fans to touch him, pet him and even treat him like a feathered Blarney Stone.

"He's so tame that some kids kiss the top of his head," Knutson said.

Knutson said he picked a bird noted for a calm demeanor. He has taken the hawk to airfields to acclimatize it to loud noises so a sold-out stadium isn't a shock, but he's also trained him differently than his other birds.

"I want him to be real calm with his feet and with his beak when there's a lot of excitement going on," Knutson said. "If I was developing him into a hunter, he's going to be using his beak and his feet in a lot of aggressive ways [and] I want him to be really calm."

The team began soliciting entries for a name last season and received 16,000 suggestions. "Taima" means thunder in several Native American dialects.

Knutson went to the Super Bowl last February, and he was at a party the week before the game when he saw quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. No introduction was necessary.

"He said, 'Where's the hawk?' " Knutson recalled.

The Super Bowl was a no-fly zone even for birds.

Flying the bird takes two people, whom Knutson calls the pitcher and the catcher. His wife, Robin, was on the field to release the bird on Thursday. His niece, Delainy, also has helped in the training. They trained Taima to fly out of a barn to simulate flying out of the tunnel, progressively closing the opening of the 30-foot door until the bird could fly through a space as narrow as its wing span.

And now there's a hawk to lead the Hawks onto the field, the fulfillment of a project that has gone from idea to egg to full flight. Thursday, he flew through the tunnel into one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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