BookShelf: Following Nature on a Transformative Journey Away From the Mean Streets of D.C.
“Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife”
By Rodney Stotts
Island Press, $26.00
Reviewed by Jennifer Weeks
Rodney Stotts is not a typical narrator for a book about finding yourself through nature.
Raised in a housing project in Washington, D.C., Stotts was dealing drugs by age 21. He needed a job that would generate paychecks and W-2 forms so he could get his own apartment, all in order to move more drugs and stockpile more guns.
At a community job fair, Stotts got an offer to work for a fledgling nonprofit called Earth Conservation Corps, or ECC, cleaning up the Anacostia River, which runs through the eastern part of the district and flows into the Potomac River.
Working outdoors was more appealing than a maintenance job, so he took the offer.
Hauling tires, old bikes, mattresses, car engines and other junk out of the Anacostia was eye-opening.
Stott’s fellow crew members, all of whom came from the projects of Southeast Washington, cheered when a great blue heron landed on a spot on Lower Beaverdam Creek that they had cleaned up.
“It was amazing how, after just a few weeks, we could see the bottom of the tributary and the water was beginning to flow,” he recalls in “Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife.”
Two years into the cleanup, the project director told the group that he wanted to try to bring back bald eagles, which hadn’t been seen in the area since the 1940s.
Stotts went all in on the eagle project — and his path started to shift.
It wound through a drug arrest and a prison stint. But when Stotts was released, he went back to ECC and was hired to train the newest recruits.
“I knew exactly where these kids were coming from: broken homes, violence, drug-addicted parents, crappy schools, and the temptations of the streets. Maybe I had something to share. Maybe I could show them how nature and wildlife can save them, if they would just open their minds and let it all in,” he writes.
Stotts became a mentor to younger corps members and worked with injured raptors that the group was rehabilitating.
That led him to falconry, which would involve intensive training with a licensed falconer serving as his sponsor.
When Stotts started asking licensed
falconers to work with him,
they “all seemed surprised that
a Black man wanted to be a falconer.”
When Stotts started asking licensed falconers to work with him, they “all seemed surprised that a Black man wanted to be a falconer.”
“One particularly annoying man said to me, ‘You people don’t hunt and fly birds, you eat them’,” Stotts writes.
Once Stotts found a more empathetic sponsor, things sped up.
He learned to build an aviary and trap and train raptors, which led to a new job with a nonprofit called Wings Over America.
His raptor work expanded into giving presentations at venues from parks and schools to powwows.
By the end of the book, Stotts had achieved master falconer status, helped his grown son become a falconer and is working to convert a rural Virginia farm into a camp and wildlife center for inner-city kids.
“Bird Brother” moves back and forth in time between Stotts’ own arc as a young man and his later full-time work with raptors.
There are stops, starts and detours as he figures out how to break a trail that doesn’t lead to drug use or life in prison.
Fascination with wildlife is what fueled him — vaguely at first, then with greater and greater focus. And it’s impossible not to root for him.
“If something is untamed and wild, then it has a spirit that can’t be crushed,” he says, reflecting on his past.
“That doesn’t mean we should be afraid of it; it just means we need to take the time to learn about it and understand it,” he adds. “Once we understand the wild things, we understand ourselves. At least, that’s what ended up happening with me.”
Jennifer Weeks is senior environment and energy editor at The Conversation U.S. and a former SEJ board member.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 29. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.