Forestry & Wildlife
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Raptors are commonly seen year-round in Alabama. Not the Jurassic Park type of raptor, but the non-extinct kind that are also known as birds of prey.
“Raptor is a general term used to refer to birds such as hawks, eagles, falcons, harriers, ospreys and other birds that hunt and capture their prey alive,” said Alabama Cooperative Extension System Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Professor Mark Smith.
The most common raptors seen in Alabama include the great horned, barred and barn owls, red-tailed and cooper’s hawks, ospreys and bald eagles.
A favorite pastime of many Alabamians is to go bird watching in hopes of seeing one of these raptors. While normal bird watching is a hit or miss, there is a 100 percent chance of seeing one of these raptors most fall Saturdays on The Loveliest Village on the Plains. It’s hard to be a football fan in the south and not know about Auburn University’s pregame eagle flight.
A Tradition Like No Other
There truly is nothing like it. The pregame eagle flight at Jordan-Hare Stadium is a chill-inducing tradition for first timers and lifelong fans alike.
However, most fans may not know the behind the scenes work to this unique tradition. The Southeastern Raptor Center at Auburn University is a regional rehabilitation and education facility for birds of prey. They provide educational programs across Alabama for those interested in learning about raptors and how to care for birds of prey in need.
“The Southeastern Raptor Center does about 300 shows annually all across the southeast,” said Southeastern Raptor Center Assistant Director Andrew Hopkins. “The largest one, though, is on Saturdays in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and that’s the pregame flight of the eagle.”
An eagle has been associated with Auburn University since the 1800s. However, the iconic pregame eagle flight around Jordan-Hare Stadium began a little over 20 years ago in 2000.
Hopkins said the tradition started when falconers were working at the Southeastern Raptor Center, training wild hawks to catch animals in nature.
“They had the idea that if we can train a wild hawk to catch an animal, could we train an eagle to soar around in the stadium?” Hopkins said. “The answer is yes.”
Starting as a simple flight from the end zone to the 50-yard-line, the eagle flight has developed into the tradition Auburn fans know and love today. Just like the football team, the eagles are training for the season year-round.
“What they’re trained to is a lure, just a circular piece of leather,” Hopkins said. “They know every time they touch this lure, they will get a food reward.”
As most Auburn fans would know, the Southeastern Raptor Center has more than just one eagle that may fly on Saturdays. In fact, they currently have four eagles at the center, with three of them actively flying in the stadium.
- Aurea, War Eagle VIII, is the youngest golden eagle at the center. She is approximately 8 years old and has been flying since 2018. In 2019, she officially became War Eagle VIII.
- Independence, or Indy, is the newest bald eagle at the center. At approximately 5 years old, she made her flight debut in Jordan-Hare Stadium at the game against Akron to start the 2021 season.
- Spirit, the oldest bald eagle, has been flying in Jordan-Hare Stadium since 2002. At 25 years old, she will be retiring at the Auburn football military appreciation game November 13, 2021.
- Nova, War Eagle VII, is the oldest of the golden eagles at over 20 years old. He officially retired from his pregame flight duties in November 2019 because of health issues. Nova is currently restricted to doing presentations at the Center.
In addition to the four famous eagles at the Southeastern Raptor Center, they have 18 additional raptors who participate in educational programming.
“All of them are non-releasable for some reason or another,” Hopkins said. “The raptors vary from little screech owls, all the way up to golden eagles.”
The Center’s raptors include owls, hawks, falcons, vultures, eagles and kites. These raptors serve as an example of the incredible wildlife in Alabama.
Soaring with Alabama 4-H
Alabama raptors can also be seen at the Alabama 4-H Science School on the grounds of the Alabama 4-H Center.
Through 4-H’s program, Raptor Trek, children and adults across Alabama can learn about the region’s native species of raptors. Similar to the Southeastern Raptor Center, these raptors arrive at the Alabama 4-H Science School because of injuries that render them non-releasable.
Whether you watch them fly at football games, or catch a glimpse in the wild, learning about and protecting these raptors will help to preserve the majesty of Alabama’s wildlife. For more information about the raptors of Alabama, check out the Alabama Extension publication Common Birds of Prey of Alabama on the Alabama Extension website. Further information is available on the Southeastern Raptor Center’s website or the Alabama 4-H Science School’s website.