Meet the Bird Nerd of Georgia Southern

Georgia Southern alumnus and falconer Steve Hein is the handler of Freedom, the live mascot of the Ga. Southern Eagles. Hein has a history as an artist, as he has worked with Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited and the National WildTurkey Federation. Hein stands in front of a painting he created in 2006, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the university.

Emma Collins

It’s Saturday night in Paulson Stadium. In the end zone, one man stands apart from the rest. As the Southern Pride Marching Band’s notes swell triumphantly, he raises his arm above his head with a calm certainty. Moments later, Freedom, Georgia’s Southern’s bald eagle, soars above the field and lands on Steve Hein’s wrist.

Hein is entering his 28th year as a licensed falconer, but his background is in business; he graduated from Georgia Southern College with a Finance degree, which he says helps with his job as director of the Center for Wildlife Education.

Born in California, Hein moved to Statesboro when he was 17. Prior to that, he lived in Ohio where he had his first encounter with a bird-of-prey.

“I experienced a bird-of-prey capture a rabbit, and the experience was profound.”

Unknown to many, Hein is an award-winning, self-taught painter. He has worked on a national level with Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Back in 2011, Hein’s artwork was on display in the Averitt Center downtown in the “Birds of Prey” exhibit. His paintings can now be seen hanging in the Wildlife Center. Surprisingly, it was his love of wildlife art that first exposed him to the world of falconry.

“I was working as a wildlife artisan in Griffin, Ga. and I met a fellow artisan who was a falconer. I was in my mid-twenties, and that night I held my first red-tailed hawk on my wrist and my fate was sealed.”

While Hein has been working with birds-of-prey for nearly 30 years, Freedom has only been in his care for a decade. Hein chuckled to himself as he told the story of how GSU ended up having a bald eagle flying over the field prior to football games.

“In 1990, during a playoff game, a bird flew over the stadium. The TV camera focused on it. They said, ‘there’s Georgia Southern’s mascot.’ It was a turkey vulture.”

After that, Hein says it was always in the back of his mind to undo that great wrong that had been done to GSU. Then, 10 years ago, Freedom came to the Wildlife Center. But before his inaugural flight at a football game, he had to spend 3 years in training. Hein credits his understanding of operant conditions and target training to his instruction of Freedom.

“I would sit there and read. I’d whistle and throw food. Freedom would come closer. I’d whistle and throw food again. Eventually, he was on my wrist.”

Part of Freedom’s training included exposing him to people, particularly crowds. On one occasion, Hein took Freedom into downtown Statesboro just to let him watch the cars go by.

“For three years, the fans at Paulson didn’t know I was there. I was there with Freedom, up on the top. All the while, I was using positive reinforcement—feeding him as he got closer to it. And actually making him look at marching bands, screaming fans, even the football players themselves.”

Now, as Hein approaches Freedom’s Courtyard inside the 18-acre Wildlife Center, the bald eagle screeches loudly over and over; he knows his handler is carrying treats. Hein steps into the enclosure with a leather glove covering his hand and wrist. He crouches down next to the eagle and presents his wrist. Freedom hardly hesitates before he hops up, and he is rewarded with a treat. Hein presents the small hood and, at first, Freedom refuses to wear it. Then, after a few moments, he looks at it, tilts his head to one side and then taps the hood with his crooked yellow beak. Hein slips it on smoothly, and Freedom is rewarded.

One thing that Freedom’s handler stressed is that the relationship between man and bird is founded on a mutual trust and respect.

“Everyone says they can tell Freedom loves me and is talking to me. He’s not talking to me. He wants food.”

Hein and Freedom have certainly shared some memorable moments together. While Freedom only flies at Paulson Stadium, Hein says his most notable appearance was at the Navy game on the anniversary of Sept. 11 a few years back.

Of all the time he and Freedom share, Hein says none is more special than when he walks into the stands and shares that moment between man and nature as he introduces Freedom to GSU fans.

“I am ever mindful that Freedom belongs to those that are True Blue.”

If you are interested in meeting this self-professed “bird-nerd” and learning more about his love of nature and birds-of-prey, checking out some of his incredible artwork or simply stopping in to see Freedom, you can find both bird and handler at the Wildlife Center during the week. Overall, Hein considers his job a privilege.

“It’s an honor to be associated not only with our national symbol but the iconic representation of Georgia Southern University.