Nova, Auburn University’s ‘War Eagle VII,’ will not be flying above Jordan-Hare Stadium this football season.
Veterinary staff at the university announced Monday that the golden eagle has a heart condition that limits the amount of exercise he should do and he will be sidelined this season.
Pre-game flights will continue, but the duties will go solely to the bald eagle Spirit, which in recent years has shared the role with Nova.
“We examined Nova in February, and an arrhythmia was found,” Dr. Jamie Bellah, director of the Southeastern Raptor Center, said at a press conference in the Wilford and Kate Bailey Small Animal Teaching Hospital. “So we did further work on Nova and found a condition that we are calling cardiomyopathy.
"That is a serious heart condition. His heart chambers were quite dilated. Outwardly, Nova looks just fine. He looks like Nova always does. But his heart function is not the same. And the arrhythmia was the initial event that triggered us to look further.”
Providing good care
All birds at the Southeastern Raptor Center undergo at least two annual routine physical exams, Dr. Seth Oster, the primary veterinarian at the center. Oster found Nova’s arrhythmia, a condition during which the heart beats irregularly, during one of these routine exams.
“At this point, we’re not sure how common this is,” Oster said. "It’s a very common disease in our companion birds – think parrots, cockatoos and macaws – but we’re not sure how prevalent this is in the raptor population. There’s a couple of studies underway, but at this point, this is going to be the first documented case that we’ve been able to find in an eagle.”
Since staff discovered Nova’s heart condition in February, the eagle has had regular sessions with Dr. SeungWoo Jung, a cardiologist and professor in Auburn’s veterinary program. Nova also has undergone a series of echocardiograms, electrocardiograms and an advanced test called a CT angiogram.
“Basically, (the CT angiogram is) a dye that we inject into his veins…and it highlights the vessels around his heart,” Oster explained. “That’s where we were able to find constriction.”
Nova is being checked daily by raptor center staff, who feed and medicate him twice each day.
“Right now, we’re limiting his cardiovascular activity,” Oster said. “Flying is like running to a bird. So obviously, we’re not going to stress his heart in that way.”
Nova does well sitting on a glove, said his handler, Marianne Hudson, assistant director of education at center. She said the 18-year-old raptor is primarily being used for educational programs because of his heart condition.
On game day, Nova will be replaced in the stadium flyover by Sprit. Both birds have been flying pre-game since 2004, and at this point, Spirit has flown before almost as many games as Nova.
Still a War Eagle
So what does that mean for football fans?
“The ‘war eagle’ term is reserved for golden eagles,” Oster said. “Nova is still ‘War Eagle VII.’ He hasn’t lost that title. But everyone’s been saying ‘War Eagle’ for years when Spirit lands on the field. They can keep saying it. That’s not going to change.”
The main concern staff has with Nova is the possibility of vessel rupture if he exerts himself, Jung said. If that happens, the result would be cardiac sudden death.
“Thankfully, miraculously, Nova has responded to cardiac medication so wonderfully,” Jung said. “We have seen significant improvement over time with the medications. That’s why we talk about the use of Nova for exhibition and showing Nova to kids, things that will be tolerable to his cardiac condition.”
There is a small chance that War Eagle VII someday will be able to fly again before a crowd at Jordan-Hare, Oster said, but the odds are slim.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility, but at this point, we’re going to take it as each season comes,” he said. “We decided we’re going to sideline him for this season and evaluate his response over the next year. Normally, (the raptors) begin their training in late June or early July, so that’s when the education staff has to know whether or not that bird’s going to be ready for flight in the fall.
"So we’ll have to make this decision before then, based on how Nova’s done over the last year with our medical therapy, with our monitoring, with our cardiology rechecks. That’s kind of our plan.”