Spirit of Auburn soccer nearing ‘bittersweet’ final flight


Handler Amanda Sweeney picks up Auburn’s golden eagle, Aurea, all through the War Eagle flight observe at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)


The chook drools around Auburn’s dazzling tradition as significantly the individuals do.

On the previous Wednesday morning of August, Spirit is woke up in her Southeastern Raptor Middle enclosure at 8 a.m. by Amanda Sweeney. The bald eagle flies to meet her handler at the doorway, initiating the day’s training session. If she does not want to get up, there is practically nothing Sweeney can do to drive her. But Spirit has under no circumstances as soon as declined. She has her each day bodyweight taken, like a wrestler planning for levels of competition, then is put in her crate for the familiar experience to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Spirit has been following a edition of this regimen every single weekday from July by means of November for the final 19 many years — at the very least 2,200 practice flights about Jordan-Hare Stadium — but she still begins drooling each time she sees the field.

On this morning, the lawn numbers are unpainted as contemporary grass grows. The 2021 period is 10 days absent. When Spirit is removed from her crate, saliva drips from the permanently-weakened beak that built her non-releasable when she was identified in Florida in 1995. The area suggests liberty and foods.

“She’s psyched,” claims Andrew Hopkins, 1 of Spirit’s trainers since 2013. “They’re qualified that the only place they are getting their food stuff is here. So she starts off getting talkative.”

Spirit agrees with a hearty squawk.

When Auburn soccer kicked off its 2021 period Saturday vs. Akron, the pregame flight over the stands in Jordan-Hare was just one of the most expected returning customs. The birds are back — but this year also brings a poignant farewell for one particular of them. Spirit, approaching her 25th birthday, will make her last flight Nov. 13 prior to Auburn plays Mississippi State.

“It’ll just be distinctive,” Hopkins reported. “I’ll be excited for her to enjoy her retirement, but unhappy that it’s her previous flight in entrance of the admirers. It’s kind of bittersweet.”

‘SHE JUST Enjoys Football THAT MUCH’

In a ritual commonly reserved for golden eagles, Spirit was the initial bald eagle to acquire part. She has flown at 45 Auburn games because 2002. “War Eagle” has been a rallying cry for Auburn followers for extra than a century, but the pregame flight ceremony began in 2000. Spirit has outlived the median lifespan of bald eagles in captivity by 9 a long time. She has the longest traveling career in university heritage.

But arthritis has nagged at her not too long ago. It is popular for an old bird. Flying can help it’s good work out for the joints in her wings. Which is section of the joy of her day by day observe. But stretching them can also cause discomfort, producing her hesitant to fly. Retirement beckons.

She has experienced to hold out a minimal added. Eagles simply cannot be contaminated with coronavirus, but with pregame flights canceled and less academic gatherings in the course of the pandemic, Auburn’s war eagles ended up a lot more or considerably less quarantined like the relaxation of the environment, currently being cared for at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s raptor heart. They ended up blissfully unaware of the yr they skipped.

“They were most likely just like, ‘Gosh, it looks like a very long offseason. It’s getting lengthier for the football time to get in this article,’” Hopkins suggests as Spirit is eliminated from her carrier in the subject-amount tunnel. “For all we know, it’s possible she enjoys sitting in her enclosure all day lengthy, finding unwanted fat and sassy.”

Spirit screeches again: potentially in objection, possibly in affirmation. Human-hen translation demands do the job. Additional drool trickles from her beak. Auburn’s eagles are conditioned to anticipate food stuff when they land on focus on — the drool is a organic manifestation of anticipation.

“She’s undoubtedly the just one that does it the most, even though,” Sweeney states. The pre-flight exhilaration has often been element of Spirit’s character. “It’s a lot more gratifying to assume she just enjoys soccer that much.”

‘IT’S A Stunning DANCE’

Marianne Hudson was even now somewhat new to coaching Spirit when they went to a armed service event to welcome troops returning household from overseas. Spirit was booked to fly overhead as the troops arrived. An automatic effective minute.

“When you are anticipating selected behaviors from a wild animal, there is no assure,” explained Hudson, the eagle’s handler from 2004-17. “There’s generally that part of be concerned that you’re gonna permit individuals down if the chook does not perform as predicted.”

The 3 birds that will make pregame flights in 2021 — Spirit, a young bald eagle named Independence and the true golden war eagle named Aurea — will all be introduced to each individual match. Handlers judge a bird’s focus and temperament to detect which is match to fly safely. Video game-time decisions are frequent.

The worst nightmare: an eagle flying absent or landing among the the spectators.

“We all know we’re pretty considerably one accident, one particular mistake from currently being shut down,” Hopkins reported. “Everyone is tense, because you in no way know what they’re going to do. Until eventually they land and they’re on our gloves, we’re stressed.”

The weather conditions is the other vital variable. It was a windy day as Hudson organized to fly Spirit for the troops. That does not bode well for bald eagles, which are far more inclined than golden eagles to staying pushed off program by a gust. On windy days at Jordan-Hare, trainers have identified as an audible right before and switched flyers. That was not an solution below.

Hudson was completely ready with Spirit’s lure, the leather-based pouch that Auburn’s eagles are properly trained to land on. As Spirit was introduced and started off traveling toward Hudson, a unexpected cross-breeze carried her above the closest tree line and out of sight.

Hudson employed a tracking machine to come across Spirit, who had landed in a subject and was waiting to be identified, uncertain what to do. When Hudson noticed the chicken, they locked eyes throughout the field. Hudson named for Spirit to appear to her.

“She did so wholeheartedly,” Hudson explained. “The conversation with the chicken, specifically on game day when it is loud or across long distances, is visible. My eyes on her eyes. It is not a interaction of affection as a great deal as it is of have faith in: ‘You appear to me, and you are going to be offered with a reward.’ It’s a wonderful dance.”

That was the second Hudson learned to really feel far more at relieve with Spirit’s gameday flights. Their mutual belief experienced been analyzed. In 2012, wind briefly pushed the eagle exterior the stadium through her flight just before a video game in opposition to Texas A&M. Hudson realized Spirit would find her way back again. For her, the pressure was generally component of the pleasure.

In 45 games, Spirit has hardly ever had a disastrous flight. Hopkins calls it “a fantastic record.” She’s just one absent from ending a great profession.

“Flying Spirit was a thrill every single time,” Hudson explained.

When she returned to the military services reception with the chook on her arm, folks from the group approached her hunting baffled. They didn’t recognize it was a teaching flight gone awry — they assumed it had been a permanent launch into the wild.

“They cheered just as absolutely as if she had landed on the goal,” Hudson claimed. “It didn’t subject that it was a miscalculation, mainly because observing Spirit fly was totally amazing for anyone.”


The fast Spirit’s carrier door swings open, her eyes are on the industry. Her brain is on food. The only issue: She just can’t locate the entice down there. So initial, a lap all over the stadium.

It is primarily a recreation of cover-and-look for. The trainers get the eagles to soar by hiding driving a brick wall at the opposite corner of the area. If they stood out in the open up, most birds would fly straight to the target, and where’s the grandeur in that?

Is flying in front of 87,000 supporters extra hard than these apply operates?

“It’s essentially less difficult with a lot more followers,” Hopkins claims. “It retains her on the lookout about and soaring for a longer time. Nowadays we have no one to disguise driving in an vacant stadium.”

The trainers are hoping for a packed home Nov. 13, to enable Spirit set on one last thoroughly majestic spectacle. The custom is for admirers to keep onto a prolonged “Waaaaaaaar” though the hen is in the air, then release with a collective “Eagle!” as it lands.

“Spirit has usually been entertaining to fly in the stadium for the reason that she’s normally far more keen to soar,” Hopkins suggests. “That’s normally entertaining that you can make men and women truly perform. Exhaust all the air in their lungs.”

At last, a university student volunteer handler runs into the stop zone, swirling the lure like a lasso. Spirit easily lands. Independence and Aurea every choose a practice flight as properly. “Indy” flew at her first Auburn match Saturday night time, in the opener vs. Akron. As Spirit’s successor, she grew to become the second bald eagle ever to make the war eagle flight.

Spirit has received more than the Auburn group in her two-10 years occupation. The group has won 80% of her 45 video games. She was a image of the university during its 2010 nationwide championship operate. Gameday pageantry was hollow without having her presence in 2020. The flight has turn into a person of university football’s defining, quintessential traditions.

Even for the regimented, transactional partnership concerning human and chicken, the conclude is bittersweet. Viewing Spirit fly usually invoked an psychological response from Hudson, “but my most emotional memory of her is nonetheless pending,” she claimed. “That’ll be this time.”

The birds are not allowed jointly in an enclosure — “otherwise, you’re gonna conclusion up with one eagle,” Hopkins says — but they generally squawk again and forth from their neighboring areas.

Perhaps it’s Spirit coaching the future era of war eagles.

Lashell Coykendall

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