Rodney Learns to Fly

  • Mr. Hoots is a Eurasian eagle owl, and one of Rodney Stotts' favorite raptors. Photo: Ari Daniel

December 25, 2015
by Ari Daniel

At first glance, Rodney Stotts seems to be a man at odds with himself. But here’s how I reconcile him: as a fierce thundercloud with the softest of silver linings. Let me explain. The thing to know about this man is that he’s obsessed with animals.

“This is Gadi and Gonix,” Rodney says, introducing me to his two American pit bulls at his Maryland home. He also has four chickens and five rabbits. He’s even taken care of guinea hens out here, monarch butterflies—you name it. And this deep love of animals emerged when Rodney was just a boy, growing up in one of the roughest patches of Washington, D.C.

“Anytime I see an animal— I mean, far back as I can remember—I jump off a bicycle, car, whatever, I’m going to the animal. It’s no one animal. It’s animals. Mice, chickens, rabbits, snakes, squirrels. I’m addicted to animals.”

That addiction ran deep. In particular, whenever he came across an animal that was hurt, Rodney felt compelled to intervene.

“You’ll see a bird that maybe flown into a glass or something and broke its wings. So we would take little popsicle sticks and try to put a little splint around the bird’s wing and keep him for a week or two. And remarkably, some were able to fly away, some weren’t. You’d see a turtle with a cracked shell, so we took a little Elmer’s glue until we started seeing its shell trying to heal back up some. When I see people arguing and acting simple, I would see animals showing love. I just gravitated more towards them.”

As Rodney grew up, though, a second gravitational force grew in intensity. At age 17, he bought a cheap used car and racked up a bunch of tickets. He needed money—fast. So he turned to what he’d seen his whole life.

“I started selling crack cocaine, actually, to pay the tickets and stuff off—got all the stuff paid off that I had to pay off. But by that time, I’m in the game now. You got clientele now, so you couldn’t just quit then. Why would you want to? The money was so plentiful. Then it became the violence with it, ’cause you couldn’t sell drugs without having a gun.”

This was a dark time for Rodney.

"If I’m coming after you, trust me, you’re going to Harmony or Fort Lincoln. Those are funeral homes. You’re gonna be buried at one.”

It wasn’t just talk. Rodney earned a lethal reputation for good reason. And then there were the times when, smack in the middle of a drug deal, a bird would streak past. And Rodney would pause the whole transaction.

“We had our coke on the table, money on the table, whatever. And say there’s a big bay window and out of that window, I saw a bird fly across and land—a hawk, owl, eagle, whatever. I would get up. I’d say, ‘Man, look at that hawk.’ Like, Oh damn!"

Once the bird flew off, Rodney would wrap the deal, take the money, and head back into the darkness. Fierce thundercloud, soft lining.

This is how I picture Rodney’s heart. As a ball of two birds. A dove and a hawk. The dove wrapping its wings around the animals in Rodney’s world. The hawk flashing its talons at the people.

Now, during this time, Rodney needed proof of legitimate income for an apartment he wanted to move into—which is how he found his way to the Earth Conservation Corps.

“It was a non-profit that was set up to give inner city youth a chance to reclaim their community, their environment and their lives.”

Rodney continued dealing drugs, but he was spending 40 hours a week hauling trash and car engines out of a tributary that feeds the Anacostia River.

“We started breaking stuff down and moving these tires. And the life of the creek exploded. Sun beaming through now, clean water, animals in here. I mean, of all the ugliness that I caused, and to be a part of something that brings life back, that brings beauty back, I don’t care who you are—you can’t fight it.”

And a few years later, it was with this same organization, that Rodney had a moment that came to define who he would become. It was the time Harriet, a regal-looking Harris’s hawk with chocolate and cinnamon-colored feathers, flew to Rodney and landed on his gloved hand.

“I was higher than any drug could ever put you on, no space shuttle has ever flown this high. To see this bird take off and I mean, no cord, no nothing. It can go wherever it wanted to go. [But it] came to me.”

This connection crackled through Rodney. He had found his ultimate way of bonding with nature. He started working with raptors and training them.

He began phasing the drug dealing out of his life. But at age 31, the police caught up with Rodney, and put him away for 5 months for possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

“Up there, man, I used to sit out there on the bench and watch the hawks and the eagles fly over. You forget you’re in jail.”

These birds that Rodney saw—flying free while he was locked up in a cage—he took them as a sign. And just like that, the dove inside Rodney’s chest was able to show the hawk a different way forward. So once he got out of jail, Rodney left his old life behind.

“I said I was gonna be a falconer. A white guy told me, ‘Black guys don’t fly birds—y’all eat ’em.’  I said, ‘Ok.’ Year, year-and-a-half later, I saw the same guy. He said, ‘Man, you know I was joking.’  I said, ‘Well, I wasn’t. I’m a licensed falconer now.’"

Now, every day, Rodney—age 44—practices falconry, which involves exercising birds of prey, feeding them, working with them to hunt small animals. He does it at home where he’s got five birds and at the Earth Conservation Corps building in Washington, D.C., where there are two birds. All of them are raptors.

“A raptor has three characteristics: binocular vision, the curved beak and they must catch their food with their talons.”

It’s time for Sky to eat. She’s a red-tailed hawk with a banged up wing. She’s non-releasable, like many of the birds Rodney works with. But he’s not the one feeding Sky in the aviary today. It’s Anthony Satterthwaite—Rodney’s apprentice—who’s holding the dead mouse.

Rodney's apprentice, Anthony Satterthwaite. Photo: Ari Daniel

Rodney's apprentice, Anthony Satterthwaite. Photo: Ari Daniel

“This is the most aggressive bird that we have,” Anthony says. “She come right at you—just gotta be ready and prepared.”

Sky flies straight for Anthony’s glove, while Rodney watches from the side.

“There you go, Ant,” Rodney says. “That’s exactly it, right there. Let her go, let her go. Just let her hop back up there again. She gonna turn around, she gonna come back to you.”

It was just this year that Anthony found the courage to work with the raptors.

“My worst fear is having one of them birds grab my face,” Anthony says. “If it wouldn’t for Rodney, I wouldn’t be going in Sky cage. And I’m six feet, 295.”

Anthony’s reluctance is the norm. Out of the couple thousand falconers in this country, no more than 30 are black.

“Black people do not like to be around something that can hurt them,” Anthony says. “We don’t need to be in a situation where this bird could scratch me up to feel the adrenaline rush. Like, we get our adrenaline rush when the police pull us over. It’s already tough enough being black.”

This is one reason why Rodney’s become such a memorable man.

“If you see a black guy with a hawk or a falcon on their arm, that’s automatically gonna get attention,” Anthony says.

And Rodney uses that to his advantage these days. He runs the raptor program for the Earth Conservation Corps and another group called Wings Over America. He’s also the CEO and founder of a project called Rodney’s Raptors. He takes his birds to after-school programs, prisons and juvenile detention centers. The birds are his gateway to young people who grew up like he did.

“That bird, definitely, is your foot in any door,” Rodney says. “I don’t care where I go. Rich people, poor people. Don’t matter, white, black, Puerto Rican. Pull out that bird—breaks every color, every barrier that you could possibly put in front of it.”

Take Hollis Wright—a 29-year-old who calls Rodney his uncle. Rodney’s been a mentor and friend to Hollis for nearly a decade.

“I can call on him for advice, just to calm me down, kind of walk me through certain scenarios,” Hollis says. “Anything from job applications or paperwork to putting the gun down and getting myself together before I make a terrible mistake and land in jail.”

Rodney has been mentoring 29-year-old Hollis Wright for more than a decade. Hollis says both the young people that Rodney works with and his birds have one thing in common: They’re both damaged goods. Photo: Ari Daniell

Rodney has been mentoring 29-year-old Hollis Wright for more than a decade. Hollis says both the young people that Rodney works with and his birds have one thing in common: They’re both damaged goods. Photo: Ari Daniel

Hollis says both the young people that Rodney works with and the birds have one thing in common: They’re both damaged goods. Hollis says that Rodney’s first step in forming a connection is to acknowledge that damage. And then—very slowly—to build trust.

"I wasn’t brought up to believe in trust,” Hollis say. “It was like a unicorn. To trust someone was giving them the opportunity to screw you over.”

It took a year, but Rodney became the first person that Hollis ever trusted. Rodney told me another story about a teenager he was working with recently. When Rodney said he was proud of him, the kid just froze and welled up with tears.

“He said, ‘Man, nobody has ever said that to me,’” Rodney says.

Day after day, this is the kind of difference Rodney Stotts is making. He’s roaming the same streets he prowled as a young man. And he’s got a reputation, just like before.

“I got people who don’t know my name: ‘Birdman! That’s the Birdman!’ No, my name is Rodney. I have birds. I’m not the Birdman. I’m not half bird, half man. That’s all they know.”

It’s okay. Rodney Stotts knows who he is. He’s just a man—a man teaching others to fly.


This story is part of the STEM Story Project,  which is distributed by PRX—the Public Radio Exchange—and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. You can read and listen to more of Ari Daniel's work at his website