Inside the pregame flight of the Auburn War Eagle

AUBURN, Ala. (WIAT) — The pregame flight of the War Eagles before every home game is a tradition synonymous with Auburn, but that picturesque flight doesn’t come without practice.

It takes hours and hours of practice, and WIAT got an inside look.

“I’ve been training birds for eighteen years. So it’s the only thing I know how to do,” Assistant Director of Education and Raptor Training Marianne Hudson said.

The training ground for these birds is a plot of land that’s seen a lot of wins and memories. Out of the millions of memorable moments for fans, one of the highest rated experiences takes to the skies Saturdays at Jordan-Hare.

“Usually if you’re training a dog, you’ve got a leash that can control it. You can kind of force it to sit down. With a bird, you can’t really force it to do anything, it’s kind of up to them!” said Raptor Specialist Andrew Hopkins.

Just like the tigers prepare to play in Jordan-Hare, the iconic eagles, Spirit and Nova, practice their pregame flights daily in the fall.

“I didn’t think they were going to rip my face off or anything, but the first time I flew it in the stadium….that was a little scary,” Hopkins said.

“They’re raptors and they’re top of the line predators, and they’re all very businesslike,” Hudson said.

The birds don’t have to bring their lunch pails to work; trainers bring it for them.

“In the satchel it’s got the lure that they come to, and also a lot of food. So when they touch the lure, I can toss down food for them and they’re instantly eating it so they think they just caught a nice delicious rabbit,” Hopkins said.

The lure and the grub go hand in hand. Spirit and Nova are trained that once they see the lure, they head right for it.

“I’ve got to hide it to make sure they’re only coming to me when I want them to come to me,” Hopkins said.

It’s their little leather dinner bell.

“We start out by having the bird come to us over a very short distance. And so literally two feet, they’ll know to come to that leather lure for their food,” Hudson said.

Both Spirit and Nova are Auburn through and through, but there are differences in the two. Nova is a golden eagle, Spirit, a bald eagle. When it comes to food, birds of a feather don’t necessarily flock together.

“Bald eagles catch a lot of fish. Golden eagles catch a lot of jack rabbits. So they have a different flight style because their prey is of varying speed. So a golden eagle generally flies faster and more aggressively than a bald eagle,” said Hudson.

And just like the players they precede onto the field, each birds has its own unique story.

“Spirit lives with us because he was found injured in the wild. He had an injured wing and an injured beak. And so it’s difficult for him to tear his food.”

Spirit is the symbol of America, but Nova is the symbol of Auburn.

“Both him and Spirit may be flying above the crowd on game day, but Nova carries the title of official War Eagle,” Hudson said.

After a hard day’s work, the two eagles retire to the Southeastern Raptor Center. Spirit and Nova live with more than 20 other species of birds. But in the Auburn family, they’re a cut above the rest.

“Well it’s always exciting to see an eagle fly, it’s what they were designed to do. It’s an exciting thing for everyone to see, no matter what color you’re wearing on game day,” Hudson said.

The War Eagle tradition is more than a hundred years old, although the pre-game flight is still a relative fledgling, beginning in 2000.

Copyright 2015 WIAT 42 News

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