A symbol of American freedom became the spirit of Auburn University football through the Southeastern Raptor Center’s (SRC) 40-plus years of dedicated raptor rehabilitation.
SRC’s mission is twofold – rehabilitate injured birds of prey and educate the public through raptor programs for schools, churches and civic groups across Alabama and neighboring states.
“The birds are the great equalizer,” said Marianne Hudson, raptor training and education assistant director. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a bookworm, athlete or what your academic achievements are. Everyone is awed and interested when they see the raptors up close.”
September marks Hudson’s 12th football season with SRC, measured so because the center’s most famous guests – Nova, a golden eagle, and Spirit, a bald eagle – circle Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium in pre-game flights each season.
“We train 12 months out of the year to make those eight flights possible,” said Hudson, 39.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns SRC’s raptors and transferred the eagles from the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega to SRC in 2000 for use in education programs.
The eagle flight is uniquely Auburn University (AU), and in the 15 football seasons since its inception, the upper deck flight and subsequent landing at the 50-yard line to cries of “War Eagle” became legendary.
Raptor Specialist Andrew Hopkins said the eagles, each fitted with a GPS tracker in case they fly out of the stadium, individually practice the flight three times daily from July to December, totaling thousands of flights annually.
“Seeing our hard work pay off when 87,000 people cheer, you know you did something right,” said Hopkins, 26.
SRC began in the mid-1970s as the Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation Center, located behind the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). For 30 years, the center grew in size and reputation, eventually coming home to nest at its current location off Shug Jordan Parkway.
Over 500 raptors are rehabilitated annually at SRC’s Elmore Bellingrath Bartlett Raptor Center Hospital near AU’s vet school. Although the hospital specializes in raptors, staff treats non-raptors if space is available, Hudson said. Healed birds are released into the wild near their point of origin or in a suitable habitat.
Raptors top the food chain and help farmers by keeping crops and buildings rodent-free, Hudson said.
The Carol Clark Laster/W.E. Clark Jr. Raptor Training Facility uses 25 non-releasable raptors, including falcons, owls, hawks, vultures and eagles, for educational presentations. Non-releasable birds are born in captivity or badly injured and unable to survive in the wild.
“Exposure of our eagles to the public through stadium flights and educational programs has led to increased awareness of wildlife conservation and education and natural history of birds,” Hudson said.
Hopkins and Hudson’s programs have lasting effects on some participants, results they never guessed possible.
Rhett LaPorte’s decision to attend Auburn stemmed from a presentation Hudson gave his sixth-grade-class in 2005. One of the first items on LaPorte’s agenda for his freshman year was volunteering at the raptor center. Four years later, he’s still hard at work.
“The best experience is actually releasing the eagles for the football games,” said LaPorte, a wildlife ecology management senior at AU. “To be at the top of the stadium and hear the fans cheer (as the eagle flies down) is awesome.”
Hopkins and Hudson have traveled as far as California for presentations, an admittedly rare occurrence, Hopkins said. In January 2014, they loaded the SRC van with raptors and enough frozen rodents to keep the birds happy and journeyed 2,000 miles to the BCS National Championship game in Pasadena.
But the duo take birds to even holier ground than football fields during area church presentations.
“The pastor talks about birds in scripture, and we talk about the natural history of the birds,” Hudson said. “We always make sure to brush up on our scripture before we go.”
Demand for SRC presentations continues to soar. In 2014, the facility made 223 presentations, with this year’s number approaching 200 to date. No matter the audience, each experience is special.
“There’s always a difference in the birds’ behavior and in the audience,” Hudson said. “It helps keeps things interesting.”
Each Friday before football games, SRC holds Football, Fans and Feathers, which includes a raptor show, flight demonstration and educational program. The event begins at 4 p.m. and is open to the public. Admission is $5.