The Southeastern Raptor Center in Auburn, Ala., has served as a safe haven for injured, ill and orphaned wild birds of prey since the 1970s. The center is home to one of the oldest traditions in college football—the Auburn War Eagles, which fly around Jordan-Hare Stadium before every home football game.
Nova and Spirit—the school’s current eagles—aren’t mascots. Instead, they symbolize the Tigers’ famous battle cry: “War Eagle!”
There are several versions of the War Eagle legend. The most commonly accepted account dates back more than 100 years.
"This legend started way back in 1892 when the very first eagle—who [had been] rescued from a civil war battle field [and was] therefore known as a war eagle—broke away from his owner and soared around the field," says Marianne Hudson, the assistant director of the Southeastern Raptor Center.
“Auburn was playing against Georgia in Piedmont Park. And when the eagle was circling, everyone got super excited and started yelling, ‘Look! It’s the war eagle!’ All that screaming and yelling got [the Tigers] excited, and it rallied them to victory. That eagle then crashed dead in the center of the field.”
If you’ve ever seen the pregame ceremony at Auburn, the last part of Hudson’s story should sound familiar.
“We reenact that to a much lesser extent by flying our eagle and landing him very much alive and well in the center of the field before the game,” Hudson says.
But unlike the legend, the flights of Nova and Spirit aren’t left to chance. Lots of hard work on the practice field prepares the birds for the ceremony.
“Nova does a lot of time in the stadium in addition to game day,” Hudson says. “We practice almost every day. Both Nova and Spirit—our game-day eagles—have a lot of practice flights, between two and three a day from June all the way through December."
And everything is more difficult at game speed, right?
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“Game day is different than practice time,” says Hudson. “Because on game day, of course, there are over 87,000 screaming fans excited to see these bird fly. On game day, the birds tend to stay in the air a little bit longer than they do in practice.”
Hudson and the other trainers try to make game day fun for the birds.
“They know that when they come to us they will get a reward,” Hudson says. “We may be hiding from them, or we may be calling [to] them from a different part of the stadium. We let them spend a little time up there, then bring them down to the 50-yard line.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about school pride. “War Eagle!" is more than just a rallying cry. At Auburn, it’s a lifestyle.
“Folks who are apart of the Auburn community will use ‘War Eagle!’ as a hello, a goodbye, a greeting and even just a show of camaraderie, acknowledgement and friendship,” Hudson says.
“War Eagle!” may not mean anything anywhere else, but on the plains it means everything.
“ ‘War Eagle!’ means Auburn family,” Hudson says. “It means community, it means togetherness and it means pride and respect for your school.”
C.J. Holmes is SI’s campus correspondent for Auburn University. Follow him on Twitter.