Master Falconer Gives Birds Second Chances

One of the few Black master falconers in the U.S., Rodney Stotts feels a connection to raptors with their independence and power.

Rodney Stotts with Mr. Hoots
Rodney Stotts with Mr. Hoots.

Greg Kahn

Rodney Stotts feels a connection with birds of prey. He appreciates their independence and power and revels in giving injured birds second chances.

Stotts knows the feeling. Now a master falconer, he was once caught up in the world of drug dealing in Washington, D.C. His mother used crack, his father was murdered, and he watched friends become lost to street violence.

But Stotts eventually found a way to pursue his dreams to work with wildlife and he's now one of only roughly 30 black master falconers in the U.S.

In his new book, "Bird Brother: A Falconer's Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife," Stotts talks about the first river cleanup job that got him off the streets and his life-changing encounter with a Eurasian eagle-owl named Mr. Hoots.

Stotts talked to Treehugger about his background, his affection for raptors, and how he works as a mentor for kids in need.

Treehugger: When you were in your 20s, you described yourself as a mid-level drug dealer in Washington, D.C. Why did you believe you would never be where you are today: either doing what you’re doing or even being alive?

Rodney Stotts: It’s not so much that I couldn’t imagine what my future could be. It’s more like the idea of having a future at all just wasn’t a reality. Growing up at that time in Southeast Washington, D.C., the options for young men were pretty limited. Basically, our lives could go in one of only three directions: professional athlete, which was just a fantasy for most of us; drug user; or drug dealer. I chose the third option, which worked for a while until it didn’t.

Where did your love for nature and animals first start?

Since I was a little kid, I was curious about animals. Even growing up in the city, a connection to nature always ran through my body, as natural as blood in my veins. If I had to guess, I’d say it came from my mom’s side. Her grandmother had a farm in Falls Church, Virginia. Cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, you name it, it was on my great-granny’s farm.

Sometimes Mom would take us there on weekends. The smell of hay, manure, fresh earth, and animal made me laugh out loud. I don’t know why—it just made me happy. Whenever we went to the farm, I felt like I was home—not only in a physical way, but in my heart. Like my heart was home. 

In the first three months of your job cleaning the Anacostia River, you helped haul away more than 5,000 car tires and filled nearly 20 dumpsters with river refuse. How important was that initial job in changing the direction of your life?

It definitely didn’t happen overnight. At first, it was just a job, like any other job. I wanted to move out of my mom’s apartment and get my own place. But to do that, I needed to show a few pay stubs to prove to the landlord that I had a job and could afford rent. You don’t get a W-2 when you’re hustling drugs. So I would say working on the Anacostia was important because it was the first job I had working in nature, but it took several years for me to realize it was time to move on to other things.

How did you meet your first bird of prey and how did that eventually propel you into a career in falconry?

I don’t really remember the first bird of prey I met, but the first bird of prey I ever held was a Eurasian eagle owl named Mr. Hoots. At the time, Earth Conservation Corps, where I was working, had started taking in some injured raptors. Since those birds would never be able to fly again, we would care for them and eventually use them to teach people about the lives of raptors and why places like the Anacostia River were so critical to their survival. 

Mr. Hoots was one of the first injured birds we took in. When he hopped onto my protective glove, I was mesmerized. He had a wingspan of about six feet, and when he looked at me with his deep, burnt-orange eyes, I felt something tug at my soul. 

My connection with Mr. Hoots made me wonder what else was out there for me. After a while, I started wondering how I could start working with healthy birds and help keep them alive. That’s when I learned about falconry and once I started, I was hooked.

What is it about birds that fascinates you? How do you draw parallels between them and your own life?

I really love all animals; it just so happens that I work with raptors. They fascinate me because they are independent and powerful. I see connections not only between birds of prey and my life but between them and the young people I work with. So with falconry, when I trap a juvenile raptor, I take care of it, get it through that first critical year of life when so many of them die, and then release it to live its life. 

When I work with young people—many of whom are at risk like I was back in the day—I try to teach them about nature and wildlife and most of all, that they have options and choices in their lives. Hopefully they see that if I had the power to change my life, so do they. 

Who are the kids you work with now and how do birds help them with their own obstacles?

In the past, I’ve worked with at-risk from several different organizations. I also give presentations to young people from various public schools. Unfortunately, the onset of the pandemic in 2020 curtailed some of those activities. But the good thing is that it gave me time to work on Dippy’s Dream. Named after my mom (her nickname was Dippy), I think of it as a human sanctuary.

Located in Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia on seven acres of land, I’m building a place where people can come to get away from the city, from their problems, and camp, learn to grow food, interact with my animals, and just heal from life. People will pay what they can to come and experience Dippy’s Dream. Just because someone doesn’t have a lot of money, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have a meaningful experience. 

I can use all the help I can get in building Dippy’s Dream, which I’m basically constructing by myself. People can visit my website to learn more about how they help.

What birds and other rescue animals do you live with now? What are their personalities like? How different are they?

I have four birds of prey, three horses, and three dogs. They all have their own personalities. For example, Agnes is a Harris’s hawk, and she is feisty and funny. Squeal is more subdued. And of course, my horses and dogs also have their own personalities. The more you work with them and the longer you have them, the more you learn about them.

Your son wants to follow in your footsteps. How did you feel when he told you he wanted to do what you do?

Mike is a D.C. firefighter and a dad, so he doesn’t have tons of time to pursue falconry, but right now is at the second level, which is called general falconer. I am at the highest level, which is called master falconer. Mike and I have always been close, and I could tell that he was interested in falconry, but he had to come to that decision by himself.

Being a falconer is a serious commitment, and Mike always knew that. I was so happy when, back in 2017, Mike told me he wanted to be a falconer. I knew he was proud of me and things I’ve done in my life, but to hear him say he wanted to pursue falconry and be like me, it was a proud moment.

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