The Spirit of Auburn football: Return of 'War Eagle' also brings one bird's bittersweet last flight
AUBURN — The bird drools over Auburn’s dazzling tradition as much as the humans do.
On the last Wednesday morning of August, Spirit is awakened in her Southeastern Raptor Center enclosure at 8 a.m. by Amanda Sweeney. The bald eagle flies to meet her handler at the door, initiating the day’s training session. If she doesn’t want to get up, there’s nothing Sweeney can do to force her. But Spirit has never once declined. She has her daily weight taken, like a wrestler preparing for competition, then is placed in her crate for the familiar ride to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Spirit has been following a version of this routine every weekday from July through November for the last 19 years — at least 2,200 practice flights over Jordan-Hare Stadium — but she still starts drooling every time she sees the field.
On this morning, the yard numbers are unpainted as fresh grass grows. The 2021 season is 10 days away. Once Spirit is removed from her crate, saliva drips from the permanently-damaged beak that made her non-releasable when she was discovered in Florida in 1995. The field means freedom and food.
“She’s excited,” says Andrew Hopkins, one of Spirit’s trainers since 2013. “They’re trained that the only place they’re getting their food is here. So she starts getting talkative.”
Spirit agrees with a hearty squawk.
When Auburn football kicks off its 2021 season at 6 p.m. Saturday vs. Akron, the pregame flight over the stands in Jordan-Hare will be one of the most anticipated returning customs. Auburn paused the beloved tradition in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns. The birds are back — but this year also brings a poignant farewell for one of them. Spirit, approaching her 25th birthday, makes her final flight Nov. 13 before Auburn plays Mississippi State.
“It’ll just be special,” Hopkins said. “I’ll be excited for her to enjoy her retirement, but sad that it’s her last flight in front of the fans. It’s kind of bittersweet.”
'She just loves football that much'
In a ritual typically reserved for golden eagles, Spirit was the first bald eagle to take part. She has flown at 45 Auburn games since 2002. “War Eagle” has been a rallying cry for Auburn fans for more than a century, but the pregame flight ceremony started in 2000. Spirit has outlived the median lifespan of bald eagles in captivity by nine years. She has the longest flying career in school history.
But arthritis has nagged at her recently. It’s common for an old bird. Flying helps; it’s good exercise for the joints in her wings. That’s part of the joy of her daily practice. But stretching them can also cause pain, making her hesitant to fly. Retirement beckons.
She has had to wait a little extra. Eagles can’t be infected with coronavirus, but with pregame flights canceled and fewer educational events during the pandemic, Auburn’s war eagles were more or less quarantined like the rest of the world, being cared for at the College of Veterinary Medicine’s raptor center. They were blissfully unaware of the year they missed.
“They were probably just like, ‘Gosh, it seems like a long offseason. It’s taking longer for the football season to get here,’” Hopkins says as Spirit is removed from her carrier in the field-level tunnel. “For all we know, maybe she enjoys sitting in her enclosure all day long, getting fat and sassy.”
Spirit screeches again: perhaps in objection, perhaps in confirmation. Human-bird translation needs work. More drool trickles from her beak. Auburn’s eagles are conditioned to expect food when they land on target – the drool is a biological manifestation of anticipation.
“She’s definitely the one that does it the most, though,” Sweeney says. The pre-flight excitement has always been part of Spirit’s personality. "It’s more satisfying to think she just loves football that much."
'It's a beautiful dance'
Marianne Hudson was still relatively new to training Spirit when they went to a military event to welcome troops returning home from overseas. Spirit was booked to fly overhead as the troops arrived. An automatic powerful moment.
“When you're expecting certain behaviors from a wild animal, there's no guarantee,” said Hudson, the eagle’s handler from 2004-17. “There's always that aspect of worry that you're gonna let people down if the bird doesn't perform as expected.”
The three birds that will make pregame flights in 2021 — Spirit, a younger bald eagle named Independence and the true golden war eagle named Aurea — will all be brought to every game. Handlers judge a bird’s focus and temperament to identify which is fit to fly safely. Game-time decisions are common.
The worst nightmare: an eagle flying away or landing among the spectators.
"We all know we're pretty much one accident, one mistake from being shut down," Hopkins said. “Everyone is tense, because you never know what they’re going to do. Until they land and they’re on our gloves, we’re stressed.”
The weather is the other important factor. It was a windy day as Hudson prepared to fly Spirit for the troops. That doesn’t bode well for bald eagles, which are more susceptible than golden eagles to being pushed off course by a gust. On windy days at Jordan-Hare, trainers have called an audible before and switched flyers. That wasn’t an option here.
Hudson was ready with Spirit’s lure, the leather pouch that Auburn’s eagles are trained to land on. As Spirit was released and started flying toward Hudson, a sudden cross-breeze carried her over the nearest tree line and out of sight.
Hudson used a tracking device to find Spirit, who had landed in a field and was waiting to be found, unsure what to do. When Hudson spotted the bird, they locked eyes across the field. Hudson called for Spirit to come to her.
“She did so wholeheartedly,” Hudson said. “The communication with the bird, especially on game day when it’s loud or across long distances, is visual. My eyes on her eyes. It's not a communication of affection as much as it is of trust: 'You come to me, and you’ll be provided with a reward.' It’s a beautiful dance.”
That was the moment Hudson learned to feel more at ease with Spirit’s gameday flights. Their mutual trust had been tested. In 2012, wind briefly pushed the eagle outside the stadium during her flight before a game against Texas A&M. Hudson knew Spirit would find her way back. For her, the tension was always part of the joy.
In 45 games, Spirit has never had a disastrous flight. Hopkins calls it “a perfect record." She’s one away from finishing a perfect career.
“Flying Spirit was a thrill every time,” Hudson said.
When she returned to the military reception with the bird on her arm, people from the crowd approached her looking confused. They didn’t realize it was a training flight gone awry — they thought it had been a permanent release into the wild.
“They cheered just as fully as if she had landed on the target,” Hudson said. “It didn't matter that it was a mistake, because watching Spirit fly was absolutely breathtaking for everyone.”
Passing the torch
The instant Spirit’s carrier door swings open, her eyes are on the field. Her mind is on food. The only problem: She can’t find the lure down there. So first, a lap around the stadium.
It is essentially a game of hide-and-seek. The trainers get the eagles to soar by hiding behind a brick wall at the opposite corner of the field. If they stood out in the open, most birds would fly straight to the target, and where’s the grandeur in that?
Is flying in front of 87,000 fans more challenging than these practice runs?
"It’s actually easier with more fans,” Hopkins says. “It keeps her looking around and soaring longer. Today we have nobody to hide behind in an empty stadium.”
The trainers are hoping for a packed house Nov. 13, to help Spirit put on one last fully majestic spectacle. The tradition is for fans to hold onto a prolonged “Waaaaaaaar” while the bird is in the air, then release with a collective “Eagle!” as it lands.
“Spirit has always been fun to fly in the stadium because she’s naturally more willing to soar,” Hopkins says. “That’s always fun that you can make people really work. Exhaust all the air in their lungs.”
Finally, a student volunteer handler runs into the end zone, swirling the lure like a lasso. Spirit smoothly lands. Independence and Aurea each take a practice flight as well. “Indy” is scheduled fly at her first Auburn game Saturday night, in the opener vs. Akron. As Spirit’s successor, she’ll become the second bald eagle ever to make the war eagle flight.
Spirit has won over the Auburn community in her two-decade career. The team has won 80% of her 45 games. She was a symbol of the university during its 2010 national championship run. Gameday pageantry was hollow without her presence in 2020. The flight has become one of college football’s defining, quintessential traditions.
Even for the regimented, transactional relationship between human and bird, the end is bittersweet. Watching Spirit fly always invoked an emotional response from Hudson, “but my most emotional memory of her is still pending,” she said. “That’ll be this season.”
The birds aren’t allowed together in an enclosure — “otherwise, you’re gonna end up with one eagle,” Hopkins says — but they often squawk back and forth from their neighboring spaces.
Perhaps it’s Spirit coaching the next generation of war eagles.