The misidentification of a large bird flying over Georgia Southern University’s Paulson Stadium 23 years ago led to a 17-acre education center that serves as home for the Eagles’ mascot, the American bald eagle, as well as other birds of prey, also called raptors.
According to J. Scott Courdin, 1991 Georgia Southern graduate and wildlife curator for the Center for Wildlife Education — Lamar Q. Ball Jr. Raptor Center, the Eagles were about to win their fourth national title when television cameras focused on a large bird flying over the stadium.
A sports announcer called it a bald eagle. It was, in fact, a turkey vulture — a buzzard.
After that misidentification of the school’s mascot, an Eagles’ alumnus-supporter and outdoor enthusiast decided the school needed an on-campus home for its mascot.
Master falconer Steve Hein was contacted, and a search began for a bald eagle. That led to the development of the wildlife center.
Courdin said the center opened its doors in 1997.
“People in the community wanted to get a bald eagle,” he said. “Then they decided, ‘Let’s not stop there. Let’s build a raptor center and include reptiles.’ Our focus since then has been raptors and reptiles.”
The center currently has two bald eagles.
“Both have injuries,” Courdin said. “One is usually in the nest, and the other is on the ground. The one on the ground was found in the woods near Jacksonville. His wing had already healed that way. It’s likely he was hit by a car.”
Courdin said hawks, falcons and owls also are hit by cars, but not because they’re sitting on the side of the road eating road kill. They tend to focus so hard on the prey they’re after, they sometimes fly in the path of a car, he said.
He said raptors and reptiles get bad raps because people don’t understand them.
Some people still shoot hawks, owls and eagles. Snakes, frogs and turtles don’t fare much better, he said.
The raptor center includes turkey vultures, a red-tail hawk, barn owls, a peregrine falcon and smaller raptors. Reptiles include the gopher tortoise, box turtles and snakes.
The tortoise and box turtles are confined to an open display area. Except for the ones in terrariums inside the center, the snakes are sort of free-range.
Most are non-poisonous, including a 6-foot long yellow rat snake seen patrolling a creek that flows through the center.
Courdin said the center has four other full-time employees, including Hein, who now is director, education coordinator, business manager and secretary.
He said several students work part-time.
He talked about Georgia Public Broadcasting’s recent episode of Georgia Outdoors, “Raptors in Flight,” that featured Hein. He said host and producer Sharon Collins spent a several days at the center shooting the episode, which aired months later.
Courdin said the center has daily education programs and field-trip options for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
For families with small children, he said they have age-appropriate programs on Saturdays, including a reptile program at 2 p.m. and flight show/raptor program at 3 p.m.
Visitors can view the reptiles and raptors in their simulated natural habitat and stroll the grounds on a footpath made from recycled truck tires.
Admission to the center is $2. Children, military and senior admission is $1.
The center closes for summer and recognized holidays.
For more information, go to welcome.georgiasouthern.edu/wildlife.