Auburn’s 21-year-old female bald eagle, Spirit, will be headlining the pre-game festivities this football season as Nova is sidelined to receive treatment for a chronic heart disease.
Since being diagnosed earlier this year, the 18-year-old male golden eagle, has been responding to treatments well, said Andrew Hopkins, raptor specialist at the Southeastern Raptor Center and a trainer of the Auburn eagles.
“He is still on the same medicine he was since the beginning, and it does appear to be working as far as I can tell,” Hopkins said. “He still has the same demeanor he has always had for all the years I’ve worked with him. It’s just the added stress of flying in the stadium would be bad for his heart.”
Though Nova will not be soaring in Jordan-Hare Stadium this year, the eagle is far from retired. He is still being shown during educational shows on a case-by-case basis, and future years may have him back in action for pre-game flights.
“Lots of people think he’s retired; he’s not retired yet,” Hopkins said. “He’s just sidelined this season, so we’re going to wait and see what the medicine does.”
Typically, both Spirit and Nova are present at Auburn home football games, being shown off to fans along the sidelines during the game. This year, Nova will not attend the games at all.
“In my opinion, it would definitely be more stressful for him to be at the game and not fly, then to actually fly,” Hopkins said. “He doesn’t know he has a heart condition and that he’s not supposed to be flying. He would constantly want to fly. So, we’ll leave him in his enclosure this year.”
Hopkins, who works with the eagles every day, Monday through Friday, and trains them for their pre-game flights, said he was a little sad when Nova was diagnosed, but that her health comes first and she is not out of the game yet.
“All the eagles have their own demeanor, their own attitude,” he said. “Nova was definitely a fun one to work with, so it’s a little sad. If nothing else, hopefully we’ll have him for many, many more years.”
Meanwhile, Spirit is doing well in her daily practices. Flight practice starts in June and will continue until the end of the football season. Spirit has been flying longer than Nova, Hopkins said, but is not flown as often, since bald eagles are more susceptible to wind.
“Bald eagles don’t handle the wind very well. The longest flights we’ve had are usually with Spirit because she gets hung up in the wind,” Hopkins said. “The way bald eagles land is … they slow down, spread their wings and flow down, which causes them to get pushed back up in the stadium on a windy day.”
Fans may remember one pre-game flight that involved Spirit flying out of the stadium. Hopkins said this is not because she was exploring of her own accord, but because she was pushed up by the wind.
“Every time she tried to land, she got pushed up,” Hopkins said. “She had to fly all the way across and go to the opposite end zone and slowly figure out how to cut through the wind and land. Instead of landing on the 50 (yard line), we had to land her on the 20, because she couldn’t drop straight through the wind.”
Hopkins said that while the eagle flight is an exciting 60 seconds for fans, it is a stressful one for the trainers.
“Luckily they have always landed in the stadium,” he said, laughing.
Having two eagles to choose from on game days was a luxury for the trainers. Now, with Spirit being the only eagle prepped for flight, a hard decision may have to be made if the wind is too harsh.
“If the winds are high, we may have to call (off) the flight and just say we can’t do it,” Hopkins said. “Also, if her attitude just isn’t there. If she’s not looking like she’s ready for game day, we’ll just have to skip it.”
Game Day Lures
For each home game, one-of-a-kind leather lures are crafted by Raptor Center staff and volunteers. The lures — which are used every home game as an object the eagles look for in which to land — feature detailed artwork of the eagles and the teams playing.
“The eagles know every time they touch (the lure), they get a food award,” Hopkins said. “That’s what they’re looking for in the stadium.”
These game day lures will be auctioned off to the highest bidder each home game weekend. Auctions will start on Friday afternoons and end on Monday. With each lure will also come two jesses, or leather straps that are tied around the eagles’ ankles to enable the handler to control them.
The lures typically go for up to $1,000, but Hopkins recalls one set that went for a much higher price.
“The Kick 6 was our highest grossing lure, and that one went for $12,600,” he said. “Which is good, because it all comes to the Raptor Center and supports us.”
Money raised from the auctions goes towards the medical costs for rehabilitation birds, food costs and training equipment costs.
“We spend about $70,000 on food every year,” Hopkins said. “That’s one of our major costs. And training equipment is expensive, too. Every time we fly birds, they’re equipped with a GPS device. If they fly away, we can find them.”
Another way to support the Raptor Center is to purchase a ticket to attend one of its Football, Fans and Feathers shows, which occur before home football games at 4 p.m. and showcase the many raptors at the center.
For information about Football, Fans and Feathers or about the lure auctions, visit www.auburn.edu/raptor.