How falconry saved a Washington man's life

Rodney Stotts's love of birds turned his life around and now he's saving others

A Eurasian eagle owl grips Rodney Stotts's gloved arm, its piercing orange eyes taking in its surroundings at a falconry centre just outside Washington DC.

The apex predator is one of the world's largest owl species, but this does not faze Mr Stotts, who leans his head in, tenderly laying his forehead against the bird.

"Falconry makes you really learn who you are," Mr Stotts said.

"You can't holler at a bird, you can't chastise a bird, you can't scream at the bird, you can't spank the bird ... So it breaks you down and remoulds you and rebuilds you."

Birds helped transform Mr Stotts's own life, leading him away from the drug dealing that he and many of his friends once relied on to make money.

Now 51, he is a master falconer and uses his birds to reach young people. He shares the story of his own life while teaching about raptors and the environment.

Mr Stotts, a Muslim, said an imam's words inspire him to continue his work.

"You understand feeling Allah's wrath, right?" asked the imam. "So when you feel His blessings, you spread those blessings, you make sure that you bring some blessing to somebody every single day."

"So that's all I try to do," Mr Stotts told The National.

His journey began in 1992, when Mr Stotts and eight other teens became the inaugural members of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC).

The non-profit's mission: to employ young people from the Washington area to clean up the polluted Anacostia River that runs through their city.

Environmentalist, ECC board member and master falconer Bob Nixon hired Mr Stotts. He hoped the clean-up efforts would encourage wildlife to return to the river.

“Rodney just got switched on by the birds,” said Mr Nixon.

Eventually ECC, Mr Nixon and Mr Stotts created an off-shoot programme called Wings Over America that focused on raptor rehabilitation and education.

“We were working with adjudicated youth,” Mr Stotts said, using the legal term for juveniles who have violated the law.

“So, I went to them one day and asked them, 'Why can't we have birds that are not injured, and catch the young people before they become injured, just like the birds?'”

He was told that the way to do so would be to become a falconer.

“And then everyone started giggling and laughing and everything,” he said. “Because ‘black falconer’ just wasn't something that you ever heard of, I guess.”

Falconry, the training and flying birds of prey for hunting, is one of the oldest sports in the world.

Rodney Stotts's book 'Bird Brother' tells his story of becoming a master falconer. Photo: Rodney Stotts

In 2002, Mr Stotts was arrested for dealing and given a two-year sentence, with all but 120 days suspended. After his release, he decided to build his future around his love for nature and animals, and is now one of the few black falconers in the US.

"I really saw coming home, I could talk to you now more than just telling you about it," he said about life after prison.

"You can now understand me because I've walked that same walk that you're talking about. It just made it a little easier to deal with people and connect and build."

His organisation, Rodney's Raptors, teaches at-risk youths responsibility and the importance of team-building.

The programme exposes them to raptors and falconry. A four-week class teaches basic veterinary skills and earns participants a certificate of completion.

“I don't teach people falconry,” he said, explaining that the birds are federally protected. “I don't want people to go out and try to catch birds and end up hurting the birds and getting themselves arrested.”

Now Mr Stotts is leading the effort to build a new raptor centre with the ECC on the grounds of an abandoned psychiatric hospital.

The site is between a detention centre for adjudicated youths and a residential educational programme, where pupils can earn a District of Columbia High School Diploma and develop other skills.

Both centres are working to bring young people in contact with birds.

“Our inspiration is the [Abu Dhabi] Falcon Hospital and the Houbara Conservation Fund," said Mr Nixon.

“We're teaching young people while they get their GED (high school equivalency) to look at careers in nature, veterinary medicine."

The conservation fund is saving the endangered houbara bustard, which was once the favoured prey of falconers. It has breeding and release programmes in several countries.

Mr Stotts is also hoping to break ground on a "human sanctuary" called Dippy's Dream.

With animals and a campground, the donation-based centre will be a spot where anyone can come to get away from the city, interact with his raptors, ride horses and have a chance to heal, he said.

"Just because you can't afford something doesn't mean you don't deserve it," he said.

Mr Stott values his work for the conservation aspect, helping endangered birds through captive breeding, but also that it brings a smile to people's faces.

In the end, he said, "that animal is going to love you the same. It doesn't care if you're white, black, rich, poor, Muslim, Hindu, whatever, doesn't care about any of that."

Updated: April 21, 2022, 3:00 AM