I sat on the couch, lit a cigarette, and waited for T. to come in from the back room with my eightball of cocaine.
T. had offered me a gin and tonic, but I would have preferred sweet tea. I’ve never really had a taste for alcohol, and of course I never broke the number-one rule of any smart drug dealer: Do not use your product. Ever. But sugar and sweet drinks? Those were my addictions. And cigarettes. And dealing dope.
“Okay, Rodney, let’s get down to business,” he said as he came back to the room. “What happened to your hand, man?” he asked, pointing to the bandage on my left hand.
“Drive-by,” I said.
“You go to the hospital?”
T. and I both busted out laughing. Everybody in Southeast DC knows that if you go to the hospital with a gunshot wound, the cops are gonna be called. Unless you’re about to die, you don’t go.
We talked for a few more minutes about the perils of drive-bys, which were practically a daily occurrence in Southeast DC, and then T. said, “Okay, let’s do this.”
He measured out the powder and gestured for me to sample. I rubbed the powder along my gums with my pinkie until I felt the familiar tingle and numbness. “Oh, yeah, that’s good,” I said.
Just as he started to spoon the coke onto the scale, a large shadow passed by the side window.
“What was that?” I said, standing up.
The window looked out on an overgrown lot strewn with empty bottles and crumpled fast-food bags. Then I saw it, on the roof of an abandoned house next door—a huge hawk, with a rodent dangling from its white, curved beak. The bird tilted its head and looked at me with intense golden eyes. This creature was impressive. I didn’t know it then, but I was looking at a red-tailed hawk, one of the most common hawks in North America.
At the time—the early 1990s—the District was still festering from the crack epidemic. The lure of the drug crawled through and in and over the endless blocks of city housing projects like roaches in the cereal cupboard. Vacant-eyed addicts roamed the streets in search of the next hit. Even my mother was addicted to crack.
I was never a street dealer–I only bought good dope from serious dealers and I only sold dope to serious dealers.
Young guys like me? Our lives could go in one of three directions: professional athlete (c’mon, get real!), drug user (and lose all control over your life?—no, thanks), or drug dealer (make good money but either get shot and killed or go to jail). I chose door number three.
I was never a street dealer. My business was on a higher level—I only bought good dope from serious dealers and I only sold dope to serious dealers. I guess you could say I was midlevel. But my housing was keeping me from growing my business. I was living at my mom’s, at the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing projects. I needed more guns. But it would have been disrespectful to keep such an arsenal at her place. I also needed to be able to make deals on my own turf.
The challenge was that even though I had thousands of dollars stashed away, most landlords wanted to see a few pay stubs to prove that a person could afford the rent. And you don’t get a W-2 from dealing drugs.
I went to a job fair at a community center and found two positions that interested me. One was in maintenance. The other was with a group called Earth Conservation Corps, cleaning out the Anacostia River. That sounded good—ever since I was a kid, if I had to choose between being outside or inside, I’d be outside. They called me back first, and I accepted.
Bob Nixon, the founder of the group, had been a Hollywood movie producer. He had read an article in the New York Times about the polluted Anacostia River and started the organization to help rehabilitate it. But not just that: He recruited kids from the nearby housing projects to work with him—the dropouts, the dealers, the violent ones. The kids nobody wanted to help, like me.
I spent the next several years in hip-high waders and rubber gloves working that filthy water, face to face with old bikes, tires, car parts, sofas, sinks, bathtubs, and thousands of plastic bags and bottles. Loading piles and piles of crap into dumpsters—but also learning the mysterious language of birds.
Birds of prey hadn’t lived in the area in decades; Bob and our ragtag band worked to bring bald eagles back to the city. We also worked with injured raptors, caring for them and teaching people about why places like the Anacostia are so critical to their survival.
Before then, I had never been a part of something so amazing in my life. My father had been murdered when I was 15. I’d dropped out of high school. I’d seen friends killed by rival gunfire, watched men I knew hauled off to jail. Honestly, I was shocked to still be alive. But now, thanks to the river, I even felt resilient some days.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I was still in my twenties—with one foot still firmly planted on the streets. I worked on the Anacostia during the day and hustled drugs at night.
In 2002, I got locked up. I had given up selling coke, but I still sold weed, and I’d run into an unexpected problem: More and more of my buyers knew me, and where I lived. I was running a greater risk. After one of my customers got arrested and snitched, the cops came for me.
I took a plea deal and was given a two-year sentence with all but 120 days suspended, plus probation for two years. On January 7, 2003, I was released from prison in Morgantown, West Virginia, with a Greyhound ticket back to DC.
The following Monday, I returned to the banks of the Anacostia. This would be the start of a five-year journey teaching new Earth Conservation Corps members about the river and why they should care about the environment. It felt good to be back, taking on new projects, observing the eagles that were now reproducing on their own, and just soaking up the space that is nature. I had made my peace with the streets in prison—I was done hustling.
In 2009, Bob started a new nonprofit called Wings Over America, located on more than 800 acres in Laurel. Also on the property was a residential program for young men who had committed serious offenses. Wings Over America would give the youth a chance to care for raptors and would expand on the Corps’s mission to give young people the tools they need to change their lives and be part of a solution to environmental problems. It was a new opportunity for me, too: I was tasked with managing the property.
It was at that time that I started to think about falconry. I really wanted to work with birds that could fly and that I could hunt. Bob, who was a falconer himself, passed along a manual and told me that the first thing I had to do was find a sponsor. (He wasn’t licensed locally.)
I started visiting and calling falconers looking for a sponsor—and getting nowhere. All of them were white, and they all seemed surprised that a Black man wanted to be a falconer.
The sponsor is a critical element to falconry. Falcons in captivity have a much higher chance for survival than those in the wild; close to 75 percent of wild hawks and falcons die before they become adults, most hit by cars or trucks. Sponsors teach would-be falconers how to identify, trap, and care for immature birds, and eventually release them back into the wild to increase the population.
The sponsor also makes sure the new falconer understands the ethics of the sport and is in it for the long haul. Some raptors can live close to 30 years in captivity—almost twice as long as birds of prey in the wild. Falconers must always do whatever is necessary to keep their birds healthy and fit. If they can’t commit, then it’s time to give the birds to a falconer who will follow the code. It might sound funny for someone with a past like mine to tell people to abide by the law, but it’s for the sake of the birds and the sport itself.
I started visiting and calling falconers in Maryland and Virginia, looking for a sponsor—and getting nowhere. All of them were white. And they all seemed surprised that a Black man wanted to be a falconer. As one particularly annoying man said to me, “You people don’t hunt and fly birds, you eat them.”
Falconry has an ancient—and royal—history. Oh, if those princes could see me now, clomping around in my Timberlands, hunting my birds, and probably doing it better than they ever could.
No one is certain of the exact year falconry came into existence, but most experts agree it started in China and the Middle East at least 4,000 years ago. That blows my mind. When food was scarce, hunters realized they could train birds of prey to find food for them. Falconry eventually began to be considered a sport and an art, and it spread across the globe.
When the sport moved to Europe sometime around the Middle Ages, it became an activity for royalty, typically with falcons rather than hawks. Falcons primarily go after birds; their talons are made to snatch birds right out of the sky. And falcons have a small notch near the back of their beaks. When they capture a bird, they can fit its vertebrae neatly into that notch and break its neck. The bird is dead before the falcon even lands. The clean, noble killing appealed to the royals.
The Falconers’ Association of North America was started in the early 1940s, when the US had fewer than 200 falconers. That organization fell apart within a few years, but falconry took off again during the 1960s, and it’s been growing ever since.
To become an apprentice, the first level of falconry, you have to take a state test and score at least 80 percent. From there, you work with a master falconer—who is also your sponsor—for two years. The next level is general falconer; this calls for experience with raptors and hunting with your bird. The final level is master falconer and requires at least seven years’ experience.
Once I learned about the sport, I knew I’d be committed. When I release a bird, watch it fly, and call it back, I feel peace and clarity and a sense that my heart is lifting. That so many white master falconers had turned me away made me angry. At the same time, though, I became more determined than ever to climb the ranks.
Eventually, I found my sponsor: Suzanne Shoemaker, director of the Owl Moon Raptor Center, a bird sanctuary in Maryland. Suzanne sometimes came by the Corps and helped us administer medicine to sick birds. She knew more about raptors than just about anyone. Once I told her what I was hoping to do, there was no convincing needed.
Everything advanced more quickly than I’d imagined. I studied for a few weeks and passed the test on my first try. Next, I built my aviary, with two-by-fours I scavenged from wherever I could find them. After that was inspected and cleared by the state, I was ready to trap a bird, a requirement for apprentices in their first year.
For several months, I spent my free time driving all over rural Maryland and Virginia, looking for one. By mid-January 2012, I had begun to feel discouraged, but I kept on, heading out with my homemade falconer’s trap in the trunk of my old Mercury Sable. One cold, sunny day, I drove down to St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland. I thought maybe the brisk air would bring out some hungry birds. I was driving slowly down a rural stretch of Leonardtown Road, scanning the tree limbs for a bird on the prowl, when I saw a large one land on a branch. I pulled my car over and jumped out to get a better look. It was a juvenile red-tailed hawk—just what I was hoping for, and my heart started to pound.
Trying to be as quiet as possible, I set up the trap with a dead rat about five yards away and then squatted behind some bushes to wait. I had taken my time making the trap after examining Suzanne’s, reading a manual, and watching videos online. But would it work? I didn’t know.
The hawk seemed interested in the rat but was still sitting on the branch.
“C’mon, now, easy does it,” I whispered. All of a sudden, in the time it took me to blink, the hawk dove and was immediately caught in my bal-chatri trap. My first bird.
Today I have five Harris’s hawks: Agnes, Nanny, Gloria, Chuck, and Squeal. Agnes is my heart, given to me by a special person—Bob’s mother, the soap-opera creator Agnes Nixon, who was one of my staunchest supporters until her death five years ago. Sweet, docile Nanny and moody Gloria are named after two of my late aunts.
At this point in my life, I know different raptors and their habits as well as I know the scars on my hands. Last June, in fact, I reached the level of master falconer. Logistically speaking, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. No framed certificate is delivered, no test is passed. Still. There are very few Black master falconers in America.
In the past couple of years, I’ve traveled to public schools across Washington and beyond, talking about my work. I’ve presented at the National Park Trust and the National Wildlife Federation and have taken my birds to D.C. United games and parties for the Washington Nationals. Earlier this year, I gave a talk at the Yale School of the Environment, my first speech at a university.
I talk to younger kids about getting past their fears. Fear can be a crutch that people lean on for too long. Pretty soon, almost everything becomes a crutch, and what have you done in your life? I want these kids to understand they have choices. With older kids, I’m more frank about my story. The drugs, the guns, jail. I don’t glamorize the hustling, and I downplay the money aspect. My message to them is that if I didn’t get into 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 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.
I had been living on Wings Over America’s property in Laurel. But last year, as I was thinking about what my next big thing would be, I realized it wasn’t going to happen as long as I was living in a trailer on someone else’s land. Once again, I needed my own space.
I started looking at property in rural Virginia. My plan is to create a place where animals and raptors can live safely, and where kids from Southeast DC and elsewhere can visit and learn how to grow food, interact with birds and animals, identify plants, and be safe, at least for a week or so. A sanctuary of all sorts.
The first five houses I saw didn’t impress me: too close to people or too expensive. Then my real-estate agent told me about a place in Charlotte Court House, Virginia. When I arrived, I saw a one-level brick house, nothing out of the ordinary. I went out the back door and started walking around the grounds, into the woods.
The house sat on seven acres, and the pulse of wildlife was present. At one point, I looked up and saw a red-tailed hawk at the top of an oak tree. I had to laugh: Surely this was a sign. I walked back to the house, sat on the back deck, and closed my eyes.
This article is adapted from “Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife” by Rodney Stotts with Kate Pipkin (Island Press). Copyright © 2022 by the authors.
This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Washingtonian.