Drug dealer to master falconer: A healing journey

STORY: Birds saved Rodney Stotts’ life.

Once a drug dealer on the streets of Washington, D.C., Stotts is now one of only a few Black master falconers in the U.S. - his life dedicated to the conservation and care of birds of prey.

"I used to tell people I went from flipping birds to flying them, because when you sell coke - kilos of coke - they call that 'flipping birds'. So, 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 in a sense."

As a twentysomething living in one of D.C.’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 expected that he, too, would end up in jail or dead.

But a local initiative in 1992 to clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River, and restore its bird populations, changed the course of Stotts’ life – giving it new meaning and purpose.

"You can throw away your life in a split second. You know, just that split second decision, you threw your life away. However, you hear all this [makes bird noises] in the background in the back of your head and [makes horse noises] and all these animal noises that you know you've got to take care of, so you can't go out and do the stupid stuff that you were going to go do, because that's your responsibility."

The river project’s leader, conservationist and filmmaker Bob Nixon, says his colleagues were skeptical when he first recruited Stotts and others from his neighborhood 30 years ago.

"Some friends of mine, I was like, 'I want to go down and recruit these people' and they're like, 'Why would you go there? Public housing? Like, I don't think anybody there is interested in nature. They just have to survive.’ I'm like, 'Let me find out'.”

Scotts had to pass a state test to become a master falconer – ensuring that he knew the ethics of the sport, how to identify, trap, and care for the birds, and how to later release them back into the wild.

But first, he needed a sponsor to help teach him all that – something that proved to be an unexpected challenge.

“People started giggling and laughing because 'Black falconer' just wasn't a term, I guess, anybody had heard.”

But by last June he had earned his designation as a master falconer, and has since published a book titled, “Bird Brother: A Falconer's Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife.”

"I tell people, 'Go to a creek and just sit and listen to the water for ten minutes. Turn your phone off, everything. Just sit there. Watch how you feel when you walk away, when you heard birds actually singing to each other, and sitting there, like, what? I miss this.That old saying, 'Stop and smell the roses?' Stop, yeah. Actually stop and smell them."