Spirit Of The Hawks

Hawks VP of Basketball Dominique Wilkins introduces the fans
to Spirit the Hawk at the team's home opener

Spirit Of The Hawks
by Micah Hart

Spirit the Hawk has been entertaining the crowds at Philips Arena since the beginning of the season as the team's new mascot. Part of a collection of birds of prey from The Center For Wildlife Education at Georgia Southern University, Spirit can be seen flying from all over the arena down to center court at the beginning of every home game.

Saturday night against the Sixers, Spirit flew from his highest perch yet, swooping down from the top level of the press box, a drop of nearly ten stories, as the fans welcomed back the Hawks from a 17-day, seven-game road trip.

At halftime Spirit then joined several other birds from Georgia Southern at the Philips Experience, where fans got a chance to have their picture taken and learn more about some of the different species housed at the Wildlife Center.

Hawks.com had a chance to catch up to Steve Hein, the director of the center, during the game to find out more about Spirit and how he learned to amaze the crowds as he does.

Hawks.com: What kind of a hawk is Spirit?

Steve Hein: Spirit is a Harris Hawk, which is native to the desert regions of the southwest - New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, even down into Central and South America.

Hawks.com: And where is Spirit from?

SH: He was born in Columbus, GA as part of a captive breeding project, and then was reared at Georgia Southern and for the last seven years has been an instrumental part of our educational program to teach people about birds of prey and their role in the ecosystem.

Hawks.com: What does your program try to teach people about birds of prey?

SH: Well, to educate today's generation of youth, you have to excite them for sure. By utilitizing birds of prey in a flighted program, you certainly capture their attention. These are apex species, residing at the top of the food chain. We have learned from the past that when a species at the top of the food chain suffers, all of the species below them on the food chain will be in distress as well.

Hawks.com: Where does Spirit hang out when he's not soaring around Philips Arena?

SH: He resides at the Wildlife Center at Georgia Southern, and he is actually one of our most active birds. He does daily flights for shows as well as 125 programs around the state during the year.

Hawks.com: What does it take to train Spirit to fly down to the court during introductions?

SH: When training a bird, you are first paying attention to their behavior, how they hold themselves when they are at rest, how they hold their feathering, whether they are relaxed. Then you shape their behavior through positive reinforcement. In a situation like at Philips, the biggest obstacle is going to be the crowds and the noise, so what we did was work him in slowly. In the first eight to ten games, we introduced him to the crowds and all the while I was feeding him, giving him rewards for his behavior. Then we started him on flights, first from ground level, then to the first tier, and progressively higher up. But once he made his first flight, it didn't really matter where we released him from, because he is just swooping down, he doesn't really have to fly.

Hawks.com: How long did it take to train Spirit to be able to do what he does?

SH: Each species is different, and individual birds respond to training at their own pace. It also depends on how much experience the person training the bird has. Spirit is actually a very intelligent bird and was really easy to train. His adaptation to Philips Arena has been nothing shy of marvelous. He has had no problem with the crowds or other distractions.

Hawks.com: So since Spirit is a bird of prey, we have to ask: who would win in a fight, a Hawk, a Thrasher, or a Falcon?

SH: Well, an eagle would beat all of them. I'm not trying to give a plug for Georgia Southern (laughing), but the bald eagle or the golden eagle is the biggest and baddest of the birds. Seriously though, it would all depend on the species.

Micah Hart is the Assistant Web Editor for the Atlanta Hawks. To learn more about Spirit and other birds of prey, go to Georgia Southern's website at welcome.georgiasouthern.edu/wildlife