It’s difficult to imagine an Auburn home football game without a traditional eagle flight around the stadium as the crowd cheers “War Eagle.”
While this has become a strong Auburn tradition today, the pre-game eagle flight did not begin until 2000 when a golden eagle named Tiger, also known as War Eagle VI, first soared around Jordan-Hare stadium in a game against Wyoming.
War Eagle VI’s historic flight was made possible by the Southeastern Raptor Center, a rehabilitation and education facility that provides learning opportunities and care for birds of prey.
While Tiger no longer flies on game days, the center currently hosts Spirit, a bald eagle, who has been flying in the stadium since 2002. A golden eagle Nova, or War Eagle VII, flew from 2004 to 2016.
Another golden eagle Aurea, or War Eagle VIII, has been flying since 2018. The Independence, a bald eagle, has yet to fly in the stadium, but is ready for gameday at the next opportunity, said Andrew Hopkins, the assistant director of raptor training and education.
Hopkins has been working at the center since 2012. He said that every day at the center looks different, but for the most part he tries to start the day by training the eagles at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In the morning, the birds are weighed to determine how much they should be fed for the day. Then, it is off to the stadium for practice flights.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
“Once we get to the stadium, I look at the wind direction,” Hopkins said. “We want the eagle to fly with the wind– that way they get pushed into the stadium.”
Since the weather on a game day is unpredictable; Hopkins said he mixes up the takeoff spots to prepare the eagles for anything.
After practice, the eagles often have a presentation at the center. The center does about 300 presentations a year.
Hopkins said a practice flight in the stadium is vastly different from an actual game day with thousands of screaming fans, but the eagles learn to look for the trainers, who hold a small leather lure. Once the bird touches the lure, they are given a food reward, he said.
“They do all have a little bit of a different personality,” Hopkins said.
Spirit is one of the easiest to work with, and will stay in the air longer than the golden eagles, Nova and Aurea, he said.
Hopkins said he is excited for The Independence to make her debut, as she is a young, powerful bird and is willing to fly higher in the stadium than the other birds.
On game day, a trainer begins preparing the eagle about five hours before kickoff. A police escort transports the bird to the stadium to be placed in the “eagle house” while the wind and weather are checked.
“Each week we have a plan as to which eagle we want to fly,” Hopkins said. “Rivalry games we like to fly a Golden Eagle. Then military appreciation games we like to fly a Bald Eagle.”
An hour before game time, the eagle’s responsiveness is checked. If conditions are good, the eagle is sent to their release point until 17 minutes before kickoff, when it will fly.
Hopkins said one of the trickiest parts about finding eagles to fly for game days is that for the center to keep them, they must be non-releasable.
“All eagles are owned by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service,” he said. “We are permitted to care for them and use them in educational presentations.”
All 23 of the birds under the center’s care have some sort of problem inhibiting their ability to live in the wild.
Hopkins said he looks for optimal vision and flying ability when selecting a potential eagle to fly for game day, but this is difficult to find.
The birds are usually trained from a young age to fly.
“As long as a raptor is physically capable of doing the training you are asking it to do, then it can,” he said.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman