Rodney Stotts was once a drug dealer on the streets of Washington, D.C. Today, he is one of only a few Black master falconers in the United States.
“I went from ‘flipping birds’ – selling cocaine – to flying birds, and the destruction that I used to cause in that life, I’m just trying to make up for it,” Stotts said.
In his new memoir, “Bird Brother”, the 51-year-old credits the “healing power of wildlife” for transforming his life.
As a twenty-something living in one of Washington’s roughest neighborhoods, Stotts had little hope for his future.
His father had been murdered; his mother was addicted to crack; and many of his friends had died from gun violence, Stotts wrote.
He expected that he himself would soon end up dead or in jail.
But an initiative in 1992 to clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River – led by Hollywood filmmaker and conservationist Bob Nixon – changed everything.
Nixon hired nine young people from a nearby public housing community to help him, including Stotts.
For the next several years, the drug hustler spent his days wading through dirty river water clearing out trash – from old tires and plastic bags to abandoned furniture – and learning about birds of prey.
Part of the group’s mission was to restore bird populations driven out by environmental degradation. Stotts and his teammates helped bring bald eagles back to the city.
Over time, Stotts found himself drawn more toward nurturing birds than dealing drugs.
“The more I moved away from it, the happier I seemed to get,” Stotts recalled.
After a brief stint in jail in 2002 for selling weed, Stotts decided to give it up for good and started teaching new members of Nixon’s Earth Conservation Corps.
Nixon said some were skeptical of his decision to hire inner city youths for his environmental projects, but that Stotts’ story had proved him right.
“He’s exactly the same. I mean, full of personality, an amazing, brilliant human being, and I could see that right away,” Nixon said about first meeting Stotts in the 90’s.
But when Stotts decided to become a master falconer, it was not easy. He had to pass a state test and find a sponsor to teach him the ins-and-outs of falconry: the ethics of the sport; how to identify, trap, and care for the birds; and how to later release them back into the wild.
Many would-be sponsors did not take him seriously, Stotts said.
“I called this guy. He said, ‘You sound like you’re a Black guy.’ I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘Black people don’t fly birds, y’all eat them,” Stotts recalled.
Eventually, he found a sponsor, and last June, proudly earned the designation of “master falconer.”
On a recent May evening, the Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy – a program for young people who have dropped out of school – worked to build an aviary for birds in rehabilitation in Laurel, Maryland.
Thirty years after their first meeting, Stotts and Nixon are passing their knowledge to the next generation and hoping to spark their interest in the wonders of nature.
“I tell people, ‘Go to a creek and just sit and listen to the water for ten minutes. Turn your phone off, everything,” Stotts said.
“That old saying, ‘Stop and smell the roses?’ Stop…actually stop and smell them.”