Courtesy Auburn-Opelika TB
You don’t have to be an Auburn University football fan to fall for Tiger, Nova and Spirit, the school’s War Eagles.
Tiger, a 30-year-old golden eagle, was the first to fly free in Jordan-Hare Stadium during home football games. After Tiger retired, Nova, another golden eagle, continued the tradition. Currently, Spirit, a bald eagle, takes flight over more than 87,000 fans and perches on the field’s sidelines, looking regal and relentless, an appropriate symbol for a team program that’s typically among the top-ranked in college football.
The three eagles are among thousands of raptors that have been rehabilitated and, when possible, returned to the wild since the Southeastern Raptor Center opened as part of Auburn’s veterinary school in the 1970s.
The War Eagles’ game-day appearance has two purposes. The eagles’ flight serves to stir the spirits of fans whose war cry is “War Eagle.” Also, the eagles, as well as the hawks, owls and other eagles housed at the center, educate the public about the importance of wildlife conservation.
The center’s education program has become a convention and meeting staple. Groups can go to the center, on Auburn’s campus, or raptor specialists will take six to seven raptors to the event site. A per-person fee is charged for presentations at the center; a flat fee is charged when the program goes on the road.
“The raptor center is one of our biggest draws in terms of group activities,” said Robyn Bridges, public relations and communications director for the Auburn/Opelika Tourism Bureau.
An outdoor amphitheater at the center seats up to 350 for presentations. Smaller groups can arrange for tours of the center’s facilities.
The hourlong sessions are tailored to the group. “It is not a cookie-cutter program; we don’t have a script,” said Marianne Hudson, raptor specialist. “If we had a group from Kentucky, for example, we would focus on some of the raptors that you would see in your state. We try to make it appropriate and engaging.”
Educators leave plenty of time for questions, and in addition to the obvious ones — “How fast do they fly?” and “How much do they eat?” — many want to know how trainers teach the War Eagles to fly free over fans and return to their handler.
As it turns out, the eagles’ training is nearly as rigorous as the football players’.
Said Hudson, “It is not difficult, but it is very repetitive. Starting in June, we are in the stadium practicing every day.”
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