Birdman

“If I didn’t get into animals and the environment, I’d have either died in the streets or been locked up for life.”

“YOU CAN DO THIS,” I SAY. “You already got the glove on. You’re halfway there.”

I’m holding Mr. Hoots, the large Eurasian eagle-owl, about four feet away from a 10-year-old girl. She is part of a class trip that is here to visit Rodney’s Raptors and learn about what I do.

Rodney’s Raptors is the nonprofit I started in Laurel, Maryland when an environmental education program I directed, called Wings Over America, began to get requests for falconry lessons and demonstrations at birthday parties, which isn’t the mission of Wings Over America, whose primary audience is at-risk teenagers. (The program does take in rescued raptors and uses them for educational purposes. It also assists in seeing if they are releasable.) Now I manage both programs.

We’re in the presentation room at the Laurel property, a 100-year-old renovated barn amid a rural landscape, and about 20 middle school students are sitting on metal chairs watching what’s going to happen.

“What’s your name?”

“Shondra.”

“Look, Shondra, I promise you that this bird won’t hurt you,” I say. “I know he’s big and scary-looking, but he is friendly.”

Some of her classmates call out, “You got this, Shonny.”

Shondra looks at Mr. Hoots, who stares back at her with his pumpkin-colored eyes. She looks at me, then back at Hoots. I try to remember if I was afraid of Mr. Hoots the first time I held him all those years ago. Probably, although I’m sure I wouldn’t have admitted it. He and I are bonded for life now.

“Hold your arm out,” I say.

“I try to remember if I was afraid of Mr. Hoots the first time I held him all those years ago.”

Shondra nervously stretches out a skinny arm encased in one of my leather gloves. “Now turn your hand a little so your thumb is facing up. Good, good.”

Mr. Hoots is sitting on my gloved hand, and I move closer so he can jump to her glove. I hear Shondra take a breath as he lands, just inches from her face. Everyone is quiet for a few seconds, and then Shondra’s classmates start cheering.

“Keep your arm up, keep your arm up,” I shout.

Shondra holds her arm up and starts to laugh. “I — I did it,” she says.

“Of course you did,” I say.

She laughs again, and I let Mr. Hoots jump back to my glove. He spreads his wings wide — all six feet of them — and the children ooh and ahh.

Shondra sits back down with her classmates, who are patting her on the back and giving her high fives. She is clearly proud of herself. And this is what I love. Now it’s time for my little lecture on fear.

Mr. Hoots is still sitting on my glove, and I pick up a dead white mouse to feed him as a reward. He grabs it with his beak.

Stotts introduces Mr. Hoots, a rescued Eurasian eagle-owl, to a child during a presentation.

Stotts with Mr. Hoots at the Wings Over America raptor sanctuary in Maryland.

The kids start to shout, “Eww! That’s so gross.” “What?” I ask, pretending to be serious. “You want to try one? I heard they taste like chicken.”

“No! No way!” they scream, and we all start laughing. “Okay, seriously, now,” I say. “What did Shondra just do?”

One boy raises his hand. “She held that hawk.”

“This isn’t a hawk. I’ll show you a hawk in a few minutes and we’ll see who wants to hold that. Who remembers what kind of bird this is?”

“An owl,” calls out another boy.

“That’s right,” I say. “So, yes, Shondra held an owl. Most people never hold an owl in their entire lives. But she did something way, way bigger than that. You were scared at first, right?”

Shondra nods her head. I continue.

“She was afraid, but she let this large bird with sharp talons sit on her hand. She just did one of the biggest things she will ever do in her life: She overcame her fear. Think about something that scares you. Okay now, if you can learn how to not be afraid of that, then you’ll be able to do anything you want. I’ll tell you a little secret about how this works: the next time Shondra is afraid of something or thinking she can’t do something, she will remember this day and say to herself, ‘Well, if I could overcome my fear and hold that huge scary owl, then I can overcome my fear now and do this thing.’ Sometimes you just have to get out of your own damn way.”

The kids start to giggle.

“Oops,” I say, holding my hand up to mouth. “I mean, sometimes you have to get out of your own DARN way. Darn.”

The two teachers standing in the back smile and shake their heads.

A boy who has been sitting quietly in the back row raises his hand and says, “Can I try it?”

“Holding the owl?” I say. He nods his head.

“Sure, come on up here. Are you a little afraid?” He nods his head again.

I go through the process with him just like I did with Shondra. When Hoots jumps from my glove to his, the little boy laughs out loud, revealing where he recently lost a front tooth.

“When you grow up with limited means, in the inner city, with or without a stable family… you end up carrying all of the baggage that comes with that.”

“See that,” I say. “I am so proud of you. You were scared and you did it anyway.”

The presentation ends, and the teachers start lining up the students to return to their vehicles. I notice that the little boy with the missing tooth is standing at the back of the line and that he is crying quietly.

I walk over and stoop down next to him. “Hey little man-man,” I say. “What’s the matter? You just did something amazing.”

He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and looks at me like he’s not sure if he can trust me. I lean my head down so he can whisper in my ear. In a low voice he says, “Nobody ever said they were proud of me before.”

“Aw, shoot,” I say, giving him a high five. “I’m saying it to you now. I. Am. Proud. Of. You. Got it? And don’t ever forget it.”

He nods and smiles and runs to catch up with his classmates.

I LOVE WORKING WITH KIDS LIKE THIS from inner-city schools. I know what they’re going through. Some of them have parents who are gang-banging, or drug addicts, or abusive. My own father wasn’t around much. Basically, the two things he ever did for me were buy me a Popsicle and beat me. He was murdered when I was 15. I know what it’s like to be poor, to be hungry, to slice through one of those blocks of bright yellow government cheese — although I think the food-stamp system has changed now. But I also remember the hopelessness, and the feeling that I would never get out of the projects.

When you grow up with limited means, in the inner city, with or without a stable family, and you’re surrounded by the bounty that drug-dealing brings, and you’re stuck in a shitty educational system that offers only a fraction of what rich kids get in their counties, you end up carrying all of the baggage that comes with that. Most crumple under the weight.

If anyone had told me 25 years ago that, at age 46, I would be a master falconer, caring for and training my own birds of prey, I would have laughed. Not so much about the falconry part — I’ve always loved animals — but mostly because I never expected to live that long, not with the life I was living.

My goal with these younger kids is to help them understand that there’s a way. There is always a way.

I switch up my presentations depending on what age group I’m talking with. I talk to the younger kids about getting past their fears. As I’ve tried to teach my own children, fear can be a crutch that people lean on their whole lives. Pretty soon, almost everything becomes a crutch, and what have you done in your life? I want these kids to throw away their crutches and understand that they have choices.

“The drugs, the guns, jail. I don’t glamorize the hustling.”

To the older middle and high school kids and the young people from Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy — a five-and-a-half-month program for young men and women who, I guess you could say, have lost their way or are very close to losing their way — I’m more frank about my story. The drugs, the guns, jail. I don’t glamorize the hustling, and I downplay the money aspect. (As part of the program, they have to do an internship with me, learning about wildlife, cleaning out cages, feeding the horses, and building aviaries.) My message to them is that if I didn’t get into animals and the environment, I’d have either died in the streets or been locked up for life.

And what are they going to get into so that they don’t die in the streets? It can get a little raw sometimes. I tell them how when someone is murdered, it’s not just that one person, but that the sadness moves out like a tsunami, crushing mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, entire families. I tell them about my friend Monique, whose murder nearly two decades ago still haunts me most nights. Some people think that because we’re poor and Black and have seen a lot of death, that we’re immune to it. You never get immune to murder. That’s why, ever since Monique was killed, I’ve had insomnia and can’t sleep more than three or four hours at a time.

It can be frustrating sometimes, and I think maybe my work doesn’t make a difference, because the problems of Southeast DC are so entrenched. But other days, I think that if I can motivate even just one kid to put down his gun and look for something else, then maybe I have succeeded.

Since I’ve been running Wings Over America and Rodney’s Raptors, the number of presentations and talks I’m invited to give is increasing. People seem naturally drawn to the awe-inspiring beauty and power of raptors. No matter their background, age, or culture, people are fascinated by the big birds. For example, every year I’m invited to bring my birds to the Annual Monacan Nation Powwow held in Elon, Virginia. Members of the Monacan Nation have inhabited parts of Virginia, particularly in Amherst County, for more than 10,000 years. They understand the majesty of raptors, and always ask me to return. I take my birds to block parties, events at the Anacostia Watershed, and even parties for the Washington Nationals, DC’s Major League Baseball team.

Agnes hunts a mouse from Stotts hand. Stotts takes the birds out on hunts and either rustle animals out of the bushes or feed the raptors by hand.

Ninety percent of wild hawks and falcons don’t make it through their first winter, so keeping them safe through that period gives them a greater chance to survive.

For the past few years, I’ve been giving demonstrations at the Patuxent Research Refuge, located on more than 1,200 acres of land situated between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Established more than 80 years ago, the refuge surrounds the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers and is pulsing with wildlife, from minuscule insects to deer and eagles. Its mission is to conserve and protect the natural habitats through research, teaching, and wildlife management techniques.

The refuge is home to more than 60 species of water- and shorebirds, more than a hundred species of land birds, almost countless mammals from the little brown bat to the long-tailed weasel, as well as all kinds of amphibians, fish, reptiles, butterflies, and assorted insects. And of course, numerous native plants and trees. It’s like this huge outdoor research laboratory.

When I wander the grounds of the refuge, I feel like I am in my own natural habitat. I breathe the clean air and let the sights and sounds nourish my soul. Sometimes, I inhale deeply, and in that small space right before the exhale, I imagine part of this wildlife air stays inside of me, circulating in my blood.

THE DAY BEFORE, I HAD SHOWED MR. HOOTS to Shondra and her classmates, and today I’m on my way to Patuxent. One of the missions of the refuge center is to educate people young and old and help them engage directly with wildlife. That’s where I come in. Patuxent is holding a Visitor’s Day, where staff members and researchers give demonstrations and point out wildlife habitats. Mr. Hoots and Agnes are in carriers in the back of my van. They are my best-behaved raptors, so I often use them to teach.

I enter the property off Powder Mill Road and drive down the winding, one-lane road toward the visitor center. The parking guard sees me approaching and waves.

“Birdman, how are you?”

“Good, I’m good,” I say. Lots of people at Patuxent and other places call me “the birdman”; some don’t even know my real name.

“Lots of people at Patuxent and other places call me “the birdman”; some don’t even know my real name.”

I grab the carriers and my glove and head around behind the building, where it’s a little quieter, and the birds won’t get nervous. It’s a sunny October day, and unusually warm — the kind of autumn day that has the last taste of summer on its lips. It feels good, but I’m also looking forward to the colder days when I can hunt with my birds.

Falconers in the US identify and trap immature birds, care for them, and eventually release them back into the wild. Ninety percent of wild hawks and falcons don’t make it through their first winter, according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. They crash into buildings or fences, or get hit by trucks or cars, so keeping them safe through that first winter gives them a greater chance to survive and reproduce.

I trap a new juvenile every winter. Once I trap one, I take them home, put the anklets and jesses on them, and start working with that particular bird. Then, usually that spring, I will take that bird out on a hunt. Once the bird makes its kill, I go get in the car and leave.

I keep Agnes in her carrier and put her in a room in the visitor center. I don my glove and take Mr. Hoots out of his carrier. We sit out in the sun on a low wall that surrounds a patio. From here I look out over the Patuxent River and watch a flock of low-flying Canada geese, honking to one another, which always sounds sad to me. Canada geese mate for life. Whenever I see them flying over in their V-formation, I count how many are there. If it’s an even number, chances are they are all with their mates. An odd number means someone’s flying solo, like me.

I’m scheduled to be here at the refuge for three hours, giving 20-minute presentations with 10-minute breaks in between.

One of the refuge volunteer guides comes around the corner with the first group, made up of about a dozen Asian-American children and adults. I don’t know if they are all one family or friends, but it doesn’t matter. They want to be here. And, like clockwork, when the kids see Mr. Hoots they start pointing and jumping up and down.

They sit in a semi-circle around me, and the guide introduces me. The children look to be between the ages of six and ten. I introduce them to Mr. Hoots.

“How old is he?” one child calls out.

“Mr. Hoots here is 26,” I say, moving my arm up and down a little, which prompts the owl to spread his wings. “He’s what we call a Eurasian eagle-owl, and he’s waving to you. In the wild, this kind of owl can survive up to about 30 years, but in captivity they live longer. The oldest one in captivity that I’ve heard about lived 65 years.”

“Why is his name Mr. Hoots?” asks another.

“Because that’s what he does all night long,” I say, making a hooting sound. Then Mr. Hoots replies, and the children laugh. “If he lived with you, you’d have to put cotton in your ears every night because his hooting would keep you awake.”

The 20 minutes pass by quickly, and the guide returns with another group of about four small families, two who are African American and two who are White. That’s one of the amazing things about nature and wildlife: It’s always colorblind. It’s here for all of us, no matter what color, age, or background. Somewhere along the way, humans started to think that we were better than the animals and the birds, better than the land, and we got high thinking we could control it. Power and control are just as addictive as heroin and cocaine. That led to destruction of habitats and over-developed areas. We have already destroyed so much of this planet. Sometimes I feel like the role I play is too little, that I need to do more, but I haven’t figured out yet what more is.

The families settle down, and I run through my demonstration with Mr. Hoots.

“Do you all want to see another bird?” I ask. Of course, the kids cheer, and the adults clap. I take Mr. Hoots inside, put him in his carrier, and bring out Agnes.

“That’s one of the amazing things about nature and wildlife. It’s always colorblind.”

As docile as Agnes is, with her large shoulders and sharp beak, she looks intimidating to those who don’t know her.

“Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?” I ask. The children in this group are older than those in the last group.

“A falcon,” one boy says.

“That is a great guess,” I say, “but Agnes here is a Harris’s hawk.”

“How do you know that’s what she is?”

I turn Agnes around and show them her coppery tail feathers.

“There are other ways to tell, too,” I say. “See how her chest is kind of big? That’s another way to tell. Most hawks aren’t so beefy. And the feathers on their shoulders usually form the shape of a white letter V.”

One of the mothers now raises her hand. “Yes, ma’am,” I say.

“So there are different kinds of hawks?”

“Oh yes,” I answer. “And they all have different traits and identifying marks. Take the Harris’s hawk, for instance. It learns fast and has a great memory — probably better than yours or mine. They have long legs and sometimes, if there aren’t a lot of trees around, they’ll stand on top of one another to better spot their prey; they work as a group.”

I explain how the more they research and look for large raptors, the easier it becomes to tell them apart.

When the day comes to an end, I pack up Mr. Hoots and Agnes, put them in the van, and visit for a little while with some of the Patuxent employees. Everyone who works or volunteers at Patuxent wants to be here, just like me. The ebb and flow of nature runs through our blood.

I drive back to Laurel, get Mr. Hoots and Agnes settled, let my dog Munna out, feed the horses, and watch the sun set.

I’ve been a general falconer for about five years now. In a few short months, I will attain my status as master falconer. The final step in my falconry journey. What is going to come next for me? I’ve started to feel restless because I’m ready for the next big thing in my life, the next puzzle piece to fall into place. I just don’t know what it is yet. I do know what it will include: raptors, animals, wide open spaces, and helping kids. Of course, that’s what I’m doing now. Is it possible to do all of that on a more vast and immense level? And what would that even look like? I’m determined to find out.

This article was adapted from Stotts and Pipkin’s new book, Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife. It was reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

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