If you’ve ever attended a home football game at Auburn University, you likely witnessed the War Eagle Flight, during which a golden eagle flies untethered over Jordan-Hare Stadium as a representation of the team’s battle cry.
While the majestic birds signify courage and bravery for Auburn alumni and fans, they hold even deeper meaning for 2nd Lt. Clayton Lester, OMS II, who works as a volunteer eagle handler at the university’s Southeastern Raptor Center.
Helping to rehabilitate and train birds of prey at the center provides a much-needed therapeutic outlet, says Lester, a member of the inaugural class at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in Auburn, Alabama.
“It’s helpful to have a passion outside of medicine,” Lester says. “It’s helped make me a more well-rounded person.”
Lester first became interested in working with birds of prey after meeting a falconer at a renaissance fair. Years later, he began volunteering at the raptor center as an undergraduate student at Auburn University. “My goal is to become a falconer and have my own birds one day, although that may not happen until I’m closer to retirement,” he says.
As a volunteer, Lester helps lead educational programs, guides tours, and flies birds as part of the center’s Football, Fans and Feathers program before all home football games. “Starting in mid-July, we’re in the stadium more than the football team,” he says.
Prepping the birds for the raptor show and flight demonstration can be challenging, Lester says. Occasionally, a bird will fly away from the crowd, requiring Lester to use a telemetry unit to triangulate its coordinates.
Volunteers at the raptor center are also learning to use GPS units to track a bird’s speed, elevation and flight path.
On a typical day at the center, Lester practices flying the birds from his glove to a perch. “It’s very easy to overstep a bird’s boundaries. I have to be in tune with the animal and the environment,” he says. “Maintaining a clear mind is so important because things can go wrong.”
Lester says training birds of prey has taught him to think on his feet—a skill that will serve him well as an osteopathic physician. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to expect the unexpected. You never know what a talon or beak might do,” he says.