Aurea peers through the slits in her cage atop a structure in the Edgar B. Carter Educational Auditorium — a line of trees away from Auburn’s Raptor Center. Trainer Andrea McCravy unhinges the latch, and Aurea quickly grabs the side of the cage with her talons and prepares to descend.
She stretches her 6.5-foot wingspan and shakes her beak about, ruffling the feathers atop her head, now shining a brilliant shade of gold in the blistering September sun. She takes off, first circling the auditorium for a few moments before dropping down to her target — assistant director of Raptor training and education Andrew Hopkins’ swinging lure.
After taking the bait, trainers corral the 5-year-old golden eagle and raise her back up on a gauntlet on their arms. She flaps her wings rapidly — almost with a sense of triumph — and the powerful gust is felt by spectators nearest her.
Hopkins and his staff smile. Aurea is their bird, their princess of the skies above Jordan-Hare Stadium, their pride and joy.
“We're in the stadium with her pretty much every day,” Hopkins, who is the only full-time employee that works with Aurea, told The Plainsman. “... We take her to almost 300 shows annually.”
But Aurea isn’t officially Auburn’s “War Eagle.” Hopkins and company would like her to be. But she’s not. Not yet.
“That's above our pay grade,” Hopkins laughed.
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Auburn’s current War Eagle is Nova, a 20-year-old golden eagle. He looks strikingly similar to Aurea, but she’s got him by a few inches in wingspan and a few pounds overall. That’s not uncommon, Hopkins said, as female eagles can sometimes dwarf their male counterparts.
Nova flew in Jordan-Hare Stadium from 2004-16 as War Eagle VII. At the conclusion of the 2016 football season, he was diagnosed with a heart condition, which prevents him from undertaking the rigorous practices and training required for stadium flights.
Nova is fine now, Hopkins said. He’s “living comfy” as a retiree in the raptor center.
Hopkins and Aurea’s other trainers would love to see her fill Nova’s shoes — or, talons — and become War Eagle VIII. But as Hopkins alluded to, it’s a massive decision to officially name the next bird. It takes time and numerous evaluations, culminating in a grandiose ceremony for whichever golden eagle assumes the role.
Theoretically, another bird could arrive in the coming years and be added to the arsenal. And if he or she proves to be a better fit than Aurea, Auburn would likely make that happen.
“That's up to all the tip top of administration, when that happens,” Hopkins said.
Aurea arrived on the Plains three years ago from near Selma, Alabama. She was found in the woods as a 2-year-old with a right wing injury — a helpless baby relative to a golden eagle’s 30-plus-year average lifespan.
Auburn’s prestigious veterinary program got her healed and back to being a frisky flyer by the time she turned 3, but the injury slowed her flight pattern significantly. Despite its best efforts, Auburn was unable to get her back in hunting form, so she was unreleasable.
As Nova was diagnosed and sidelined, Aurea then trained behind Spirit, the raptor center’s eldest Jordan-Hare bird at 23 years old.
Spirit, a female, is the only bald eagle to have flown in the stadium in Auburn history. Auburn prefers to use its trademark, recognizable golden eagle — and War Eagle VIII will be of that species — but Spirit was a reliable option while Aurea was being trained. Spirit is also more experienced than even Nova was, having flown at Auburn home games since 2002.
Spirit’s last hurrah in Jordan-Hare was the Auburn football team’s thrilling victory over Texas A&M last season. Then the torch was passed and Aurea flew for the first time at a game prior to the team’s Senior Day against Liberty.
She looked all the part of a rookie, however, staying airborne for just moments before she made a bee-line for the midfield logo. In her first flight this season — prior to Auburn’s home opener against Tulane — she began to climb along the north side of the stadium before rapidly changing direction and descending to Hopkins at midfield.
And prior to the Tulane flight, she wouldn’t leave the cage for a good 10 seconds.
“Yeah, she's still getting used to the crowds and everything,” Hopkins said. Then he cracked a smile. “We're saying that last week, she just wanted to make sure the cameras were on her. She wanted to make sure that everyone was watching that time.”
While she had some novice tendencies through a pair of flights, she was still the best option to fly that day that Auburn could decide on. Hopkins said the trainers don’t know which bird will fly at a game — Aurea or Spirit, the latter of whom remains on-call prior to games — until an hour before kickoff.
In the bowels of Jordan-Hare, Hopkins takes a long look at both birds, evaluating their focus and energy. He calls it their “game face.” And if Aurea, the presumed “starter” for that game, doesn’t have her game face on, Spirit would be rotated in to fly.
The youngster must have had a fierce demeanor in Week 3 — Auburn’s second home game against Kent State. It was Aurea who was peering through the slim openings of her cage, across from the Jordan-Hare press box, atop the winding concourse above Section 46 of the stadium, 20 minutes before kickoff.
She gracefully exited the cage and soared down, 10 feet or so away from grazing the heads of spectators in the north end-zone — just as Nova was famous for doing.
She stayed on that end of the stadium, hovering over Pat Dye Field, before looping around the end-zone twice. As Hopkins came running to midfield from the opposing team’s sideline — Aurea’s lure methodically swinging in his right hand — she darted back his way. The 84,542 packed in the stadium for Homecoming screamed in unison as she landed: “Eagle, hey!”
At 24 seconds, it was Aurea’s longest flight yet. As they leave the field, Aurea twitches her head rapidly toward Hopkins, her beak facing his nose. She blinks and tilts her head just slightly. Hopkins grins.
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