Rodney Stotts is a master falconer who has spent nearly a decade training and apprenticing to trap, care for, and teach raptors to hunt alongside humans. (His bird of choice? Harris’s Hawks.) But Stotts has spent just as much of his career educating others—and helping more people realize that falconry is something they can do, too.
In his new memoir, Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife, Stotts shares how he arrived at that revelation. With humor and a deep respect for those who influenced him, Stotts recounts how an innate love of nature stuck with him through years of ups and downs. He grew up in housing projects in southeast Washington, D.C., and in the early 1990s took a job cleaning up the Anacostia River with the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), which set him on a path of becoming a conservationist. All the while, however, he juggled various other part-time jobs, including dealing drugs. In 2002, he was sent to jail due to more punishing laws about possession of marijuana, but by then he’d already started helping with raptor rehabilitation at the ECC. When he was released in 2003, he had a sense of clarity about what he wanted to do with his life. Ever since, he’s dedicated his time to falconry, educating people about raptors, and eventually training his son Mike to be a falconer, too.
A willingness to look at life differently is important to Stotts, both in his own path toward working with animals—which he hadn’t thought possible growing up—and in teaching people to appreciate birds. “Look up and you’ll start to see things,” he says. “You’re riding down the highway, you will pass 10 hawks.” (The day after we spoke, I looked up while driving at sunrise; there was a raptor perched on a light pole.) Stotts’s charisma and knack for storytelling have already placed him in the spotlight, including in the documentary The Falconer and a 2016 piece in Audubon. With his new book, Stotts is sharing his journey in his words.
Reached by phone on his property in rural Virginia, Stotts sounded most excited about plans for a new chapter in sharing his love of the outdoors. He’s been clearing land to build a sanctuary called Dippy’s Dream, named after his late mother, where people can camp and spend time with animals like horses, goats, and of course, birds. It will be donation-based so that anyone can attend if they can't afford to pay. He hopes to provide a space for people to find release and connect with the renewed perspective that nature can offer. "It's a place to come and heal," Stotts says.
Stotts spoke with Audubon about his recent work, reflections in mentorship, and how spending time with animals connects him with loved ones.
Audubon: Can you talk a little bit about how you work directly with birds as a master falconer?
Stotts: I'll trap a new bird every winter. Ninety percent of juveniles don't make it through their first winter, so I’m only catching juveniles. You just want to get them through that first winter and give them a greater chance to survive and reproduce. I will take them home, put the anklets and jesses on them, and start working with that particular bird. Then, usually that spring, on my last hunt, I will take that bird out on a hunt. Once the bird makes its kill, I go get in the car and leave. Over the last few months it’s been working with me, so now it's looking for me. I’m not there. The bird will go on. The next time that bird gets hungry, it hunts on its own again. And once it does that, you basically have a wild bird again—it's not looking for help anymore.
This winter, I actually didn't trap and didn't really have a lot of time to hunt the birds that I do have. I have Harris’s Hawks, which are the only birds that hunt in a group. I usually catch a Red-tailed Hawk or [a similar bird] every year and hunt the red-tailed, then I'll hunt my Harris’s Hawks
A: Do you think there is anything unique about how you work with your birds?
S: There’s one thing I do that most falconers don't. If I happen to trap a bird that is an adult, I go on social media and say, “Listen, I trapped an adult red-tailed today. I'll be releasing them after about an hour. If anyone has any names they want to give to send out on a prayer, let me know.” So people submit names of those who passed away, or who they just want to pray for. I write down all of the names. I go out, record on Facebook Live, read off the names, say a prayer, and then release the bird. And so people see their loved one's name being released with that bird.
I believe you die twice: once when you physically die, and then the last time someone mentions your name. So to me, I understand exactly how they feel when they see that bird take off.
A: You write a lot about how your interactions with animals connect you to people you’ve lost.
S: Every person that's been with me that's released a bird has cried. I mean, guys who were stone-cold murderers back in the day—the raunchiest, roughest people you would ever want to see. They'll toss the bird, the bird flies off, and then they’ll look away, and they can't get words together. All you can hear is "Man, you just don't know." I'm just sitting there laughing, saying, "I do know: That's exactly how I was feeling."
All of it to me is healing. My animals now—I hear them. The other day, I was missing my mom and my brother, in a state of depression. I kept hearing all this noise. One of my birds is in one of my bedrooms, so I went in there, and I was just looking at the bird. I could hear my mother saying, “What's wrong with you? We don't give off none of that self-pity stuff, you’ve got five minutes. Get it over with, do what you’ve got to do.” Right after that, I was sitting there and it was my birthday—actually, 12 o’clock midnight. I could hear her telling me happy birthday.
If you close your eyes, close your ears, just listen with your heart, I guarantee you can hear everything your animals are telling you—and they're not telling you what you think you want to hear. You will hear exactly what that person would have said to you, good or bad or indifferent.
A: In Bird Brother, you discuss how you and your son Mike wanting to teach more Black people to become master falconers. How do you approach mentoring people and getting them to see falconry as a viable career path in the first place?
S: I didn't know what a falconer was growing up. I didn't know any of these things because I never was exposed to it. About two years ago, I was in the Southeast with a buddy of mine. We were out riding my horses, and there were these four little Black boys. The oldest couldn't have been more than 10. And he said, “Where did y'all get those horses from?” I said, “These are my horses.” And he said, “We can own horses?” I said, “We can own anything we want as long as we take care of it, respect it, and treat it right.” And he said, “I want a horse when I grow up.” This little boy might be the next rodeo champion or anything because he was exposed to it, he had never seen a Black person on a horse before. It’s the same way with falconry and everything else.
So now I’m definitely not the only person that’s doing this. I'm starting to see other falconers step out, but I don't want to say “getting exposure” because no one does this to be popular. I'm starting to hear about more Black falconers and other falconers. I've sponsored people, Black people, white people. It doesn't matter to me. If you have a love for the animal and the sport and you’re serious about it, let's go. The things that you do with [the birds], to me, is more than the sport itself.
A: How has the pandemic affected your educational work?
S: I still do a few programs here and there, following all of the guidelines. Before it got too cold, I would just take a bird and go to downtown Washington, D.C. or go to the Lincoln Memorial or Hains Point, and walk around. People walk up and ask questions and take pictures. Just to see them smile, you know—we have enough stuff that makes us unhappy. If I can make you smile, it doesn’t cost me anything, doesn’t hurt me at all. So why wouldn't I do it?
A: What makes you happy right now?
S: Knowing what I'm trying to leave for my grandkids and great grandkids. What makes me happy right now is just seeing them smile, knowing that they get to come here and ride horses and at least one of them may take over. There's a lot of times that people leave here and all they leave are bills. Their name didn't mean anything. That dash in between your born date and your death date—I just want mine to mean something. That's all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bird Brother: A Falconer's Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife, by Rodney Stotts (with Kate Pipkin), 224 pages, $24.00. Buy it on Bookshop.org