Big Birds and a Bigger Heart: The Story of Mr. Stotts and His Raptors
A mottled brown bird with stunning orange eyes and a wingspan the size of a sixth-grader landed with a thud against the arm of Rodney Stotts. The bird -- a Eurasian eagle owl named Mr. Hoots -- and Stotts have had a long partnership, and Stotts greeted the impact of his arrival with warmth.
Stotts first felt the weight of Mr. Hoots on his arm as a teenager working to clean up the Potomac River. At that time, he and several friends from the same rough neighborhood banded together, through the Earth Conservation Corps
(ECC), to try to clean up the nearby Anacostia River. As they made progress, older neighbors took notice and suggested to the newly-formed group that years before, the river had been a home to bald eagles. This, then – having a river clean enough to support eagles – became the group’s powerful goal.
Over time, the river improved and, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Arboretum, the teenagers of the Earth Conservation Corps helped to rear a new population of eagle chicks. DC’s bald eagles, which you can see today, are the descendants of those birds.
Still, Stotts says, he was no angel, saying he used to be "a gun-toting, drug-dealing idiot." One year he went to 33 funerals of friends and family who had been murdered or who died due to drug addiction.
During this time, the ECC continued to work with the government environmental agencies, work that eventually led to a life-changing moment for Stotts: the first moment that he held an owl on his arm. It was Mr. Hoots. Stotts told Audubon
about the experience: “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.”
Going to a falconry event hosted by Stotts last October felt almost as revolutionary to me. I had seen that there was an event called “Raptors Reign” at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, and it seemed like a good time to try out my new camera. I assumed that the presentation would be like similar events I had previously attended, with a handler wearing khaki and a few key facts mentioned before the handler let the photographers go to work.
Instead, while I was, as always, impressed by the power and grace of the birds, I was even more deeply struck by the relationship between Stotts and the birds. If photography is a way of creating distance between yourself and the subject, the better to see the world as it actually is, then Stotts’ very deep relationship with his falcons was so crystal-clear that it needed no distance and made him almost irresistible as a photographic subject.
A few weeks later, I met my friend and colleague angela n. at the zoo for a little wildlife photography and mentioned this amazing experience I had had. Immediately, she knew who I was talking about – as it turned out, she had previously attended one of Stotts’ events at the headquarters of the ECC and had been similarly impressed.
Stotts was giving another falconry demonstration at the Patuxent Research Refuge just after Thanksgiving; unfortunately, I was out of town, but Angela agreed to attend. These are mainly her photos.
If you, too, are getting interested in Stotts, his story, and his falconry, you may be able to see him this spring at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge
; they’re still working on the schedule.
If you are interested in environmental photography, Stotts’ organizations may provide some inspirational opportunities. Stotts runs Wings Over America DC
, “a 501 c3 non profit service learning program with a dual mission: rehabilitating our endangered youth and returning birds of prey to the wild.” In addition, the Earth Conservation Corps is also still an active organization, working with disadvantaged DC youth
in programs ranging from the Anacostia Raptor Watch, Friday Night Fishing, and Urban Forestry.