Falconer who escaped violent past uses birds of prey to mentor at-risk youth

March 16, 2012

In a field off Leonardtown Road in St. Mary’s County, a flash of feathers caught Rodney Stotts’s eye. It was a young red-tailed hawk, a quarry he had been seeking for months.

He quickly baited his trap with a rat and quietly left it in plain sight of the bird of prey. With any luck, the hawk would go for the rodent and snare its feet in the small loops tied to the top of the cage. This was the moment he had been waiting for after an unlikely journey that he had begun 20 years ago, when he was dealing drugs and watching friends die around him.

Now, with his trap set, he waited. It was Jan. 13, the last day of trapping season. If he was going to finally catch a hawk, this would have to be the day. The bird turned, dived and took the bait.

Stotts wanted to shout for joy as he watched the hawk spring the trap, but he knew he had to stay calm, put on his gloves and untie its legs. Soon, he hoped, it would be flying to his arm and eating from his hand. For now, he had to keep it from attacking him.

“I almost passed out,” Stotts recalled. “There’s not a word that can describe it.”

Stotts, 41, had just months before become a licensed falconer, the first African American in the region to earn the distinction. He named the red-tail Tink, after his friend Gerald “Tink” Hulett from another life. Falconing had helped Stotts escape the violent streets of Southeast Washington, by way of the Anacostia River, where the birds nest. He’s working now to show others the way.

‘I got tired of the guns’

Two decades before his first hawk, Stotts was a cocaine dealer who found himself at a crossroads.

“I got tired of the guns and the drugs and the nonsense,” he said. “The funeral home made a lot of money off of us.”

In 1992, after he attended 33 funerals in a single year, Stotts needed paycheck stubs to rent a new apartment. He had found two job prospects — cleaning offices or working for a fledgling nonprofit group called the Earth Conservation Corps. Preferring to work outside, he chose the latter.

A filmmaker named Bob Nixon, himself a master falconer, had been chosen to lead the Earth Conservation Corps after persuading the George H.W. Bush administration to create it.

The Bush administration had ambitious plans to employ thousands of youths planting trees and cleaning streams. “And I said, what about nine kids, one creek,” Nixon recalled.

Stotts, his friend Hulett and seven others were the nonprofit’s first recruits. They began by cleaning up Lower Beaverdam Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia River. As they spent time pulling hundreds of tires from the water, they noticed that great blue herons were returning to the ecosystem.

Still, Stotts found it difficult to break free from his old lifestyle. While he had once been able to make thousands of dollars in a single weekend, he was pulling in only $100 a week working on the Anacostia. “Hustling is an addiction,” he said. “It was a process. It didn’t change overnight.”

Things did change in 1996, when Stotts realized he hadn’t spoken to Hulett in a few weeks. He gathered a few friends and headed over to Hulett’s house to surprise him, only to discover that he had been stabbed to death over $10. The funeral had been held that morning.

“That was my brother,” Stotts said. “He was a wild individual who turned his life around totally.”

Three of the original nine Earth Conservation Corps members — Hulett, Monique Johnson and Benny Jones — were killed in the years following the organization’s founding. As the program grew, they were the first of many who could not escape their pasts.

“I’ve stopped counting how many kids we’ve had to bury,” Nixon said.

Early on, Stotts had a feeling that his work with the birds was what he had been put here to do. He found solace in the nonprofit’s push to reintroduce bald eagles to the nation’s capital that began in 1995. The last nesting pair of eagles had left Washington in 1954.

“Bald eagles were on the endangered species list — just like young black men at that time,” he said.

The group raised eagle chicks to maturity before sending breeding pairs out to repopulate the region. The first eagles released were named after Stotts’s slain friends, a tradition he continues. Probably half a dozen nesting pairs now call the District area home, he said.

Stotts now lives on a tree-filled street in a corner of Fort Washington with two of his six sons. They range in age from 17 to 23 — the three oldest have moved out of the house while the youngest stays with his mother.

Helping at-risk youths

Stotts works full time with Wings Over America, a group that emerged from the Earth Conservation Corps, to mentor at-risk teenagers through raptor rehabilitation and environmental education. He believes that working with birds of prey can teach patience, compassion and understanding.

Stotts’s home is essentially a menagerie. Two pit bulls have the run of the house, while two caged rats get crackers when they’re not acting as raptor bait. Upstairs, a black rat snake keeps watch from a bedroom tank. At one point or another, Stotts has owned ferrets, frogs, spiders, scorpions and lizards.

“I’ve had just about any pet you can think of,” he said. “Half the people around here do not know my name — they call me Dr. Doolittle.”

The home’s crown jewel, however, sits in the back yard. This is the mews — a large, shedlike birdhouse designed to hold birds of prey. Building one was part of Stotts’s progression from falconry apprentice to licensed falconer.

Only those with licenses can trap and keep young birds of prey. Since most raptors die before their first year, trapping, training and releasing them allows Stotts and other falconers to keep the population at a healthy level.

Stotts has worked with hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and kestrels.

After learning under an expert falconer for two years, Stotts had to pass a written test and have his equipment inspected to earn his license. When the inspector showed up to check the facility, he was taken by surprise.

“He’d been doing this for 30 years, and he’d never inspected a black man’s mews before,” Stotts said with a laugh.

Stotts built nearly every piece of falconry equipment he owns by hand. He and his sons worked on the mews in July and August to get it ready for trapping season, which begins in September.

“That’s the most beautiful mews I’ve seen in my life,” he said. “And it’s built out of 60-something pieces of scrap.”

‘An amazing mentor’

Stotts’s love of falconry inspired his son Dallas Coleman, 20, to follow in his footsteps. He’s the only other person Stotts trusts to handle some of the birds.

“If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t have picked up a falcon or anything,” Coleman said. “I owe it all to him.”

Stotts’s falconry is much more than a hobby. He believes he has found his full potential working with the birds. “There’s a light that turns on inside of you that says, ‘I can do anything,’ ” he said.

Nixon, who founded Wings Over America, sees Stotts as a valuable member of the organization. “Rodney’s been leading the charge over there,” he said. “He’s been an amazing mentor to a lot of young people.”

Stotts carries an air of legitimacy because of his experience.

Many of the young men he teaches come from the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a detention center in Laurel with a focus on preparing young offenders to return to normal life. Those he works with know about his drug-dealing past, and his turnaround serves as a reminder that they, too, can change.

“People have come up to me and said, ‘You saved my life,’ ” Stotts said. When he hears that, he tries to set the record straight. “No, you saved your life,” he says.

Wings Over America is in the process of developing the 800-acre plot of land around New Beginnings, carved from a patch of woods off Route 198 in Laurel. The organization has a welcome center there that sits near a century-old barn that will soon be turned into a home for educational programs.

The eventual goal is to add another building for rehabilitating injured birds of prey and a set of flight cages people from around the area can visit. Stotts would also like to see a program in which he and other falconers visit D.C. schools and hold exhibitions for students.

“You find the ones that are terrified at the beginning, and by the end of the day they have an owl on their arm,” he said. “You see that light turn on.”

On March 9, months after his big catch, Stotts took Tink the red-tailed hawk on a routine fly just outside his house. Tink was now the tamest bird that Stotts had ever worked with.

As Tink leapt from Stotts’s glove, however, an unexpected gust of wind took him into the wrong tree, where he was attacked by crows and forced to fly away. Stotts ran through the woods screaming, unsure which way Tink had gone. It soon became clear that the hawk was lost.

“I was devastated,” he said. “Friday night, I didn’t even sleep.”

While Stotts had been planning on releasing Tink soon anyway, he had wanted to videotape the affair as part of a memorial for Hulett. “To make those memories is special, because sometimes that’s all we have,” he said.

Stotts still goes out most days to look for Tink and keeps the bird’s perch in the back yard in case he returns. As for the hawk’s namesake, Stotts says his memories of Hulett and all the others who lost their lives keep him focused on his mission.

“If you walk up to 50 different people and ask what a falconer is, maybe one of them will know,” he said. “I want to walk up to 50 different people and ask what a falconer is and have 50 of them answer, ‘Me.’ ”

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