Watching a bird of prey in flight can be breathtaking. Hearing Rodney Stotts’ story is absolutely awe-inspiring. He is one of the few African-American falconers in the country, and it’s his winged friends that saved his life.
After losing many of his friends and family to the drugs and violence of Washington, D.C. in the 1990s, he had a wake up call.
The former cocaine dealer found his way to the Earth Conservation Corps-- a volunteer group helping disadvantaged youth. He discovered a connection with the environment as he helped clean trash from the Lower Beaverdam Creek -- one of the most polluted waterways in the country at the time.
It was hard work, but he and the other volunteers soon saw the fruits of their labor. The river was recovering, animals were coming back, and he even helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduce bald eagles into the area.
While a crack epidemic plagued his city, Stotts found solace by rehabilitating birds of prey in the wilderness and giving them “a new life” just as he had been offered.
“It was so strange,” Stotts told Audubon.org about the encounter that set him on this path. “I’m standing there, this little black guy from the ghetto, with a Eurasian Eagle Owl on my arm—which was like a dog to me, big as this bird was. It was every range of emotion you can possibly think about. And when I put [the owl] down, I felt empty.”
18 years later, he is now the director of raptor conservation and youth empowerment at the nonprofit Wings Over America, the raptor program coordinator for Earth Conservation Corps, and visits more than 50 schools a year to work with children through a partnership with the Metro Police Department.
He uses the fascination and beauty of his birds to help children see the connection between the endangered species like the Bald Eagle and the lives of D.C.’s youth as they navigate the drugs, violence and hate that still exists today. Although he admits to not being much of a people person, he sees the difference he is making on the faces of the children.
Stotts told NPR, "You realize who you used to be, and all you used to cause is pain and tears, and now you're causing laughter and joy."
Watch the video to see how Rodney’s life took flight.