Thumbnail image: Rodney Stotts
[Lisa Kopp] Right, it’s noon. So let’s get going, so we can make the most of this hour. Welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And before we get started with today’s content, which is hosted from Ithaca, New York, as I just mentioned, I want to read a statement acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this land.
Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogoho:no, the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogoho:no are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogoho:no dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogoho:no people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world, who appreciate birds and the integral role that they play in our ecosystems. And our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science that help solve pressing conservation challenges.
My name is Lisa. I’m on the Visitor Center team at the Cornell Lab. And I get to be facilitating today’s conversation with Rodney. We are so excited to have you here, Rodney. Thank you for joining us.
[Rodney Stotts] Thanks for having me. Truly appreciate it.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, so I’m just going to do a couple of quick tech announcements. And then we will jump into the good stuff. So for those of you on Zoom, we have closed captioning available. It’s right at the bottom of your Zoom screen. If you would like to hide those subtitles, there’s an option. There should be three dots you can click on. And there’ll be an option to show or hide subtitles.
Also, for those of you on Zoom, we are going to be using the Q&A feature, so that we can have Rodney answer some of your questions. I’ve got some questions that Rodney and I will start out with. But I’ve got some wonderful colleagues behind the scenes who will help keep the question and answer a place where I can check and relay questions to Rodney, so that this can sort of be a two way conversation.
For those of you who are watching us on Facebook, welcome. Happy to have you joining us that way. You can also participate in the comments and the question and the conversation. So just put your questions in the comment section. And again, we’ll have people providing me with those things. So we can try to get you involved, as well.
We are only going to be using the Zoom chat for technical issues. So again, we’ve got wonderful people behind the scenes, who can help if you’re experiencing any video or sound issues. We right now, seem to be working well. We’ve got clear sound and good video quality. So on our end, things look, OK, hopefully. Things are working all right on your end, as well.
And then the last thing is that if you are on Facebook, we want to make sure that you don’t click on anything that isn’t coming directly from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ve had some issues with bots and spam attempts. And we don’t want anyone to have to deal with any of that. So like I said, I’m really excited to be able to have Rodney here to tell you all his story and talk about his book. So before we even start, I want to just sort of head off the question, which is going to be, where do we get Rodney’s book? Because that’s what we’re going to be talking about. And there’s so much in there that will be worth your read. And so we’re going to put that right in the chat right now.
It’s through a publisher called Island Press. And they’re actually offering a 30% discount for webinar attendees. So you can use the code webinar in all capitals to get a discount on that book. And like I said, the code and the link will be right in the chat.
So Rodney, I got to meet you during Black birders week last summer. And you and Black Birders week coordinator, Deja Perkins, had a conversation that was really inspiring. And I think one of my colleagues who watched it said it was like one of the best hours, like bird related hours that she had witnessed because it was just so inspiring. And the chat was so engaging. And it was just we couldn’t wait to have you back. And when we heard that you were going to be putting out a book, it seemed like the perfect moment to celebrate this huge accomplishment. So congratulations, first of all.
[Rodney Stotts] Thank you.
[Lisa Kopp] And for those of you who missed that conversation with Rodney and Deja, we’ll put that in the chat. We have an archived video of that. So we’ll– I’m sure we’ll cover some of the same things that we talked about that you and Deja talked about. But we’ll also be talking about a little bit of what comes from your book, specifically.
So I just want to show everybody the cover of your book. It also is the picture that we have on the webinar page. But it’s a really special read. And I got to go through it to sort of prepare for this webinar. But it’s special to be able to talk to you, directly, about it. So do you want to jump in?
[Rodney Stotts] Oh, thank you. Let’s go. Yes, I’m ready.
[Lisa Kopp] So can you tell us a little bit about you and who you are, sort of introduce yourself for those of the people in the audience, who aren’t familiar with just a little bit about your story? And then we’ll get into some of the really sort of amazing parts that are in your book.
[Rodney Stotts] Sure. my name is Rodney Stotts. I’m a licensed Falconer. I’ve been working with birds of prey for almost 30 years. I’m just an animal junkie. I love animals. I have horses and dogs and mice and birds and a bit of everything. I’m in the process of starting a human sanctuary with animals called Dippy’s Dream, named after my mom, who passed seven years ago. And I’m just excited to be with you guys again.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. So I know that there are going to be a lot of questions about falconry, specifically, because it’s just so fascinating, the history, the equipment, sort of the traditions of all of it. So I want to assure people that we will get into that. But what I wanted to start out with is begin with a little bit of like a mini book talk. So your book starts in 1992. And so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what was happening in your life back in 1992.
[Rodney Stotts] Well, back in ’92, I was a drug dealer. I needed a job because drug dealing didn’t give you a pay stub. So when I was applying for an apartment, and they were asking where were your money coming from, we had to find some reason, some legitimate way to show that you were earning money.
So actually, there was a job fair in what was called Valley Green years ago, off of Willow Road in Southeast. And there was two jobs going on there Earth Conservation Corps and a cleaning company. The cleaning company was paying more. The Earth Conservation Corps was an outside job. I’m not a people person. So I can’t do offices and be around a lot of people. So I took the outside job that was actually paying $100 a week, which was comical, at the time.
[Lisa Kopp] Right, you talk about what you were bringing in as a drug dealer and that it was really sort of necessary for you, at the time, to be able to maintain living, right?
[Rodney Stotts] Yes.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, and I loved hearing about your sort of lifelong interest in animals, right? That’s like a theme throughout your book. And like even just chatting with you before, I can give away the fact that you had three dogs running around right before we started this. So obviously, that’s something that’s been a thing for you your entire life. And you talked about making these journeys up to the National Zoo.
Someone asked where you live now. But growing up, you lived in Washington DC, right?
[Rodney Stotts] Yes.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, go ahead.
[Rodney Stotts] Right, I’m sorry.
[Lisa Kopp] I was just– I love I love the story of you going up to Washington DC to visit the bald eagle. And that sort of had like a really important significance to you. Talk a little bit about that or why that outside job felt like it was a fit for you at the time.
[Rodney Stotts] Well, like I said, at the time, I’m still not now. I’m not a people person. I never really was and to be in an office and crowded around computers and everything, it just wasn’t me. I love animals. I love to be outside. I love exploring something new, different and new, every single day. So once you’re outside, I mean, you’re always going to see something different, if you open your eyes. And I just couldn’t be that one that set in an office and felt like I was running myself in an early grave. So I just had to be out.
And going up to the zoo, I used to go see all of the animals. The eagles, the thing that really fascinated me the most about them was the fact that it was the nation’s capital bird. And it wasn’t here. The only place you ever saw it was locked up at the zoo. And so that’s where you had to go. And it just was so amazing that, why was this big, beautiful creature that surely could handle itself and take care of itself and survive, is only locked up behind these cages. It’s the only time you would get a chance to see them.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, that’s such a good point. So you started out with the Earth Conservation Corps. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you were doing and what that sort of community that formed around that role was?
[Rodney Stotts] Sure. when we first started, we were doing a project called, Lower Beaver Dam Creek. It’s a tributary to the Anacostia River that was so polluted, it had about 5,000 car tires, engine, sofas, cars. I mean, you name it. Parts of cars, everything was just choking this creek out. So we got to pulling their tires up and cleaning some of the stuff out of the creek . And as days were going by, you started seeing little minnows and Great Blue Herons fly back through. And so you started realizing kind of like you felt like a mother, in a sense, who was giving birth back to the creek because life was coming back. If that doesn’t — yeah, you know.
So I mean, that’s the feeling that you were getting, you were seeing something being born that you had a hand in cleaning up because you guys probably had a hand in messing it up to begin with.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, well, and so the Earth Conservation Corps, it was new, right? When you joined it, it was a brand new program. You want to talk a little bit about– I mean, I know you guys were working on a specific project. But did it have some goals, some broader goals in mind?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, technically, it was a three month program when it first started. And it was just to do the tributary to Lower Beaver Dam Creek. We had gotten a grant from Cures Pure Water 2000 to do a limestone travel stream down in Texas. So we went to Texas to do a travel stream. And unfortunately, one of our coworkers was brutally raped and murdered in Texas. And so that kind of put a big hole on everything for a while. And then, we all came back together and decided that we were going to continue. And everything that we did from that point on within that particular core member, Monique Johnson’s, name. And so that’s pretty much how everything really got started, as far as that.
Like I said, that was a three month program to begin with. Everyone saw the success that was going on at Beaver Dam. And then we got offered to come to Texas to do a project there.
[Lisa Kopp] Right, and that sort of solidified the impact that you all were having. And yeah, I know it was a long time ago. But I’m so sorry about what happened to your friend, Monique. You do talk about it in the book. And it just sounds incredibly, incredibly traumatizing. And that’s a sort of a theme in your book, right? I noticed that there’s a lot there’s loss throughout it. But you seem to have the ability to find hope, also.
And as you just mentioned, that it sounds like your core group of friends and colleagues really banded together after that really awful experience and sort of did things to honor Monique’s memory.
[Rodney Stotts] Oh, yes, ma’am. Well, even to this day, everything that you see that I do, any documentary, any article or anything, believe me. Monique, Benny, and James are four of the main reasons why I’m doing what I do now. And one of the main things that, through out all that loss, there was always an animal around me. And that animal would always just make me feel better, whether it was a bird, a dog, a mouse– and so I could talk to that animal. I’d end up naming the next animal that I got after the person that passed. And so any time I wanted to talk to them, I would go talk to the animal.
They would talk back, too. I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, I would hear whatever it was that they would tell me, if they were standing in front of me, physically. So it wasn’t some fantasy, where I might hear everything. They’re going to tell me I’m right all the time? “No, that wasn’t the problem,” they told me. “No, you’re wrong.” And so you have to change and stop and pay attention, the same way if they were standing right there in front of me.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s a really beautiful description of being able to keep the memory of someone really important alive. And speaking sort of a really big moment of loss, do you want to talk to us about what happened in 2002 and how that period of your life set you on a different trajectory?
[Rodney Stotts] You mean after Monique?
[Lisa Kopp] In 2002, when you were arrested.
[Rodney Stotts] Oh, you could have said that. That was the best thing that could have happened to me, honestly, at that particular time. And I was still out doing what I was doing and the whole little drug game and everything. And I was too comfortable, too many people knew too much about me, where I was, what I was doing, how much I had, things of that nature. That inner circle was so big that if any one of them, at any time– which ended up happening– decided to set you up, snitch on you, or do anything, you would have a tough time trying to figure out who it was because you got gotten so relaxed that you started slipping and letting too many people around you.
Ended up, that’s what happened. Someone snitched. I got arrested, ended up going to jail for a short period of time. However, at that time, I think it saved me because I got out of still been out, I probably would have become even more relaxed than what I was and would have ended up getting myself killed.
[Lisa Kopp] Now you do mention in your book that you didn’t expect to live as long as you have, right? You say that.
[Rodney Stotts] Oh, no, ma’am.
[Lisa Kopp] You say that really clearly. Yeah, so you talk about in your story having this transformational experience in prison. And then when you were released, you sort of made a drastic change and really sort of refocused your life. Do you want to talk about what you did when you got out?
[Rodney Stotts] Sure. what happened was I heard the call of the Adhan numerous times. That’s the call that Muslims do when they’re coming to prayer. And this particular date, I heard the call of the Adhan. And I looked up, and there were no bars. I wasn’t in a cell. I was actually sitting on a beach. And I could see the water. I could smell the water. I mean, I just started– this overwhelming calm. I don’t I don’t even know that the adjective, word to describe that feeling.
However, I just, tears just kept running. And I kept — And when I talked to certain people, they say that was God talking to you. He’s telling you. He gave you your chance right now. Don’t mess it up. And so from that point on, I just started looking at it as the blessings, really understanding what blessings were. I used to think that, unless you had money, then you didn’t have a blessing. The only way you blessed me was to give me some money. That’s not blessings. That’s not at all.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s a really amazing story. And when you got out, you really sort of focused on birds, right? Was that sort of the moment that you sort of made that commitment to focusing on that?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, what happened was I started back with Earth Conservation Corps again. For some reason, no matter how many times I left there, I always ended up back there. So I figured it was destiny that I had to be there for some reason. And so when I went back, I was still doing a rapid program and everything. So I asked everyone because we only deal with adjudicated youth, we have birds that are injured, why can’t we get birds that are not injured and work with youth before they become adjudicated? If the whole thing was to fight the recidivism rate, if you stop them from getting locked up to begin with, there is no recidivism rate.
So however, a young person comes down. And you say, well, you can’t join this program because it’s only for adjudicated youth. So technically, you are saying, go get locked up. Now come on back, and now you could be a part of the program. So when I told people that, they said, well, the only way that you can have these type of birds and do what you want to do, you have to become a falconer. I said, OK, well, I’m going to be a Falconer. And people looked at me as if I told the best joke in the world. I was the greatest comedian. I had no understanding of it was supposed to be, this rare thing or something.
I just I knew what falconry was. I didn’t know all that it entailed. However, I just knew I was going to become a falconer. And then when people doubted it, that just made me do it even more.
[Lisa Kopp] So I know that people are so curious. How did you become a falconer? What were the steps you had to take?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, first you have to find a sponsor, which is usually a three year general or master falconer that will sponsor you. Once you find your sponsor, you can get the book and start studying. You’ll schedule your test, do fish and wildlife. You’re going to take your test. Once you pass that test, and you have an aviary, which is the house that your bird lives in, they’ll come out and do an inspection. Once you pass inspection, you’ll get your license. Now your sponsor takes you out trapping your first bird. You’ll go out. You’ll trap your first bird, which in Maryland is either a Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, or a North American Kestrel.
So once you trap your bird, and you start working with it and manning it down and going from there. You have to get that permit first before you go out and grab a bird.
[Lisa Kopp] Sure, that’s a really important point. Yeah, thanks for reiterating that. And you talked about you were building an aviary in like the suburbs of DC, right? In Maryland. In like the backyard of a townhouse, right? Yeah, and when I read that, I thought to myself like I can’t imagine there are a lot of aviaries in suburban Maryland.
[Rodney Stotts] So it was kind of funny when I talked to the homeowner that I was renting a house from, he knew that I was a falconer. He knew that I had dogs and everything. And when I explained to him what I wanted to do, he said, OK. And so I started building the aviary. And a lot of people from that community had an idea of who I was. And they didn’t believe that this Black guy had a hawk at his house. Maybe somewhere at a job site somewhere. Yeah, but not at your home.
So once I built the aviary and would come out front with the birds. And then everybody realized, oh, wait a minute. He really has a– and just nonstop. People would you look out your back window. And there’s people all in your yard, looking and looking– there’s the bird! Trying to be quiet. So it just turned into this big thing that I saw people being happy. So I wouldn’t stop them. They didn’t do anything to harm the birds or mess up the property. So I would let them do it.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so cool. Was that sort of? I mean, when you first began getting into falconry, I know that you’re sort of underlying motivation was to be able to share it with people. But were you intending to start sharing at that early? Or did it just sort of organically happen, where you sort of became an educator? Like you started like becoming this educator, in a lot of ways?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, no, I tell people with me it was a little different because I got into falconry. I had already been working with birds of prey for over 10 years, 10, 12 years before I ever became a falconer. So I was always doing community outreach. I would take the birds and go out on a Saturday morning and just walk the Southeast DC and all down Hains Point and just walking around with a bird. And then people would stop and start to — So I always stayed out in the public’s eye, in a sense, because I always felt that you never know what anyone’s going through that day. So if you happen to see me with that bird, the first thing you want to do is smile.
So no matter what was going on, you broke that acidity, even for a few seconds. So when I got into falconry, it was just now another aspect of showing people what you can actually do with the birds, when you are hunting them and things of that nature. How you take care of them, how you release them back into the wild. Because a great deal of these birds, almost 90%, won’t make it through their first winter. So you being a falconer, you’ll trap juveniles. You help them make it through that first winter, sometime the second, and you release them. Now that bird has a better chance of reproducing, and its population not declining.
[Lisa Kopp] We’ve got a really great question in the Q&A asking, what does it feel like to develop a bond with one of these magnificent birds?
[Rodney Stotts] There hasn’t been a word that has been created in the English language that really describes that feeling. It’s the most magical, highest– it’s like you’re on some hallucinogenic, in a sense. I mean, all you’re all you’re looking at is it’s in slow motion, when it happens. And this bird is coming. And you realize it’s flying 30, 40 miles an hour. And it looks like it’s going two miles an hour. And it’s just– and you’re watching it. And your eyes just get as large as your face. And when that bird lands on your hand, and you grab those jesses– I mean, you’re going to cry. I mean, that first time it happens, the emotions that run through you, it makes you realize how small we really are, when we stress out over some of the things we stress out over.
And they’re really not as big as we really made them out to be. And when that happens, it’s just a feeling that can take you somewhere that you would love to go.
[Lisa Kopp] In your book, you talk about your son, who decides that he wants to become a falconer, also. And you talk about how you guarantee that when he has that first interaction with a bird, that he’s going to cry. And he’s sort of like brushes you off and is like no, no, no. But it sounds like you really that is a truly moving experience for people.
[Rodney Stotts] And when he got his first bird, he cried like a baby. Jumped around, “Dad, I got him. I got him!” Yeah, I said, I told you what you was going to do. “Dad, dad”– he just was super excited. His thing was he came over to where I was one day. And I was walking out of the woods, as he was driving down the street. And he looked over. And he was saying to himself, “why is my father in the woods– what’s wrong, what’s going on?” So as I’m walking, I just blew a whistle and put my hand up. And my hawk flew out of the tree and was following behind me. He stepped on the gas, flew up to where he could park at, jumped out the car. “Oh, oh, Dad! Oh!” He just went off like a little school kid.
And so I knew then, yeah, he’s going to be a falconer.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, it was in his blood. That’s very cool. So we talked about how you built your aviary out in the suburbs of Maryland. And that you started sort of just introducing your community to these birds. What were the next steps for you, in terms of sharing what you’re doing? And I know you talk about Wings Over America and Rodney’s Raptors. You want to talk a little bit about those projects and sort of what they provided for you, at those times?
[Rodney Stotts] Sure. wings of America was, is a sister program to Earth Conservation Corps. It’s actually located on the Old Oak Hill Youth Detention grounds out in Laurel, Maryland, which is now called New Beginning. We were in the process of building a flight aviary for wounded birds, once they went through the surgeries and everything. And they needed a place to fly to get back up into conditioning, that they would have a flight area to actually be able to do that in.
So I started working with some of the young people up there because we couldn’t get the all in the logistics worked out with running a corps there. However, there was a corps there called Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy. So for the first maybe five years, six years of them being in existence, I would bring their group up every Tuesday and Thursday or Monday and Friday, whatever two days out of the week and would actually teach them how to build the aviary and how to take care of the birds, how to make the anklets. And they would help me make traps and stuff like that. And then I ended up getting horses. And so I would teach them equestrian shit, so they learned how to tack horses, how to clean their feet, how to shampoo them, how to wash them, how to walk them. And then we would build a round pen, and taught them how to walk, trot, and canter on horseback and things of that nature.
So just seeing anything that involved an animal and a person, especially if they were deathly afraid of it to begin with, when they finally put that fear aside and– you see this whole new person. You can’t go back to the person that you used to be. It’s impossible. And then so I started Rodney’s Raptors because Wings Of America, at the time, we were going through a little transitional phase, in a sense. And so I started Rodney’s Raptors because I wanted to be able to share it with any and everybody. It wasn’t so much of being on a jail facility. I wanted to be able to come to where you were.
So I started going to hospitals and elderly homes and parks. And I would do birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, you name it. You wanted to work there. And then, it brought joy to everyone that was I would always just pop up. And so with Rodney’s Raptors, when the pandemic came about, I had to start trying to figure a way of surviving and making sure that my animals are OK and still be able to do what I wanted to be able to do, especially now through this COVID and everything, people are depressed. I’ve been depressed. And I just go grab an animal, whether it was the mice behind me, the dogs, the birds, the horses, something. I just go. And that animal, I can get out everything I wanted to get out. And at the end, the animal is going to look at me and lick me in the face or kiss me on the cheek or something. And how can you be mad anymore?
I mean, everything about, it’s just give me my animals. I’m sorry. Just give me my animals.
[Lisa Kopp] And now you are out in Virginia, right? So you mentioned Dippy’s Dream at the beginning. You want to talk a little bit about what your project is that you’re focused on now?
[Rodney Stotts] Definitely. My mom, her name was Mary Stocks. Her nickname was Dippy. She always used to say she wanted a home for all her kids to be able to come home to. However, she passed away about seven years ago. And I was able to get a home down in Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia. And so I’m starting a human sanctuary with animals. And it’s actually called Dippy’s Dream.
And so what it is basically, is a place where anyone can come and just escape. There’s no need to have a certain amount of money in order to be here. It’s donation based. So it’s no– if you get up every morning and you feed the homeless. You read to kids. You teach. You do all of these things. But you don’t have $2000 to take equestrianship lessons, does that mean you don’t deserve it? No, it just means you couldn’t afford it. Well, guess what? You had $40 and you were able to get here. You learned everything you would have learned at the same place that you paid, that would have charged you $2000 for it.
It’s just a place where you can come and pet the animals, fly a bird, set out and roast plants and vegetables. They’ll be the Afghan goats and chickens and everything. Just get away. Believe me, when you’re here, you don’t hear fire sirens, and fire department, and police. You don’t hear people and all this noise. You actually can sleep out underneath the stars. You can sit on the porch and not worry about drive-bys and anything else that’s going on, a place you can just come and heal. So when you go back to wherever it is that you have to go back to, you can come back into it with a different outlook because you’re never going to achieve that staying in that same toxic environment all the time.
[Lisa Kopp] It sounds like a magical place. And obviously–
[Lisa Kopp] It’s obviously so inspired by your contagious passion for animals and sharing the joy that they can bring to people. Where does it stand now? How can people come visit? I think we put in the chat the website for Dippy’s Dream. But you want to give us? You want to let us know? I think, well, you were just mentioning before we went live, that you’ve got a lot of clearing. There’s like a lot a lot of love and labor going into this on your end.
[Rodney Stotts] Yes, actually, I’ve been since the pandemic. There’s good and bad in everything. And it gave me a chance to really get down here and get a lot done. So I’m really hoping to have everything open, to a point of how I really want it by July 1st. However, right now, if people want to actually pitch your tent with their sleeping bags, bring your little grill. I have seven acres. Come. 3 and 1/2 acres is fenced off, where the horses are. The other 3 and 1/2 acres aren’t. So if you want to sleep in where the horses are, you can. If you don’t, sleep on the other side. And you can come out now.
It’s not so much a– as time go on, I’ll bring any other animals and things of that nature and build the other pens and sheds and stuff like that I need to do. However, technically, now you can come. I’ve had people here over the last three months that have called me, I never knew about them before. Facebook or something. And I will get a call and say, hey, listen. I really need to get away. Can I come to your house for the weekend? Sure. They would say, are you serious? I’m like, sure.
I have pictures of them holding the birds. And when I’m taking them back they’re crying and telling me how much that meant to them. And I try to explain to them, it meant more to me than it did to you, trust me. Because every time you smile, and I was a part of it, that means I made my mother proud, my brother proud, all of those, Monique, all of those people are smiling. So if I do it a little selfishly to get those smiles from now, many people think that is for them, however.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s amazing. And we’re getting some questions about how you’re running this. Like we’ve mentioned your website. There is a place where people can donate, if they want to help contribute to this. We also have some people asking if you take volunteers. Do you ever have a need for volunteers?
[Rodney Stotts] Yes. Yes. Yes, I definitely do. If you are in the Farmville, Keysville area, that’s close to where I am, Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia, 23923. If you’re in that area, yes, please. I can use all the help in the world. I have another five acres of leaves that’s been here since I got the house, five years ago, that we have to rake up to open up pasture space. And trees that have to be taken down. Oh, yes, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. I can surely use all only help possible. Yes.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. You might be getting people sending you notes, after this. Do some farm work for you. We’re also getting lots of comments, and I have to agree, people saying that you said you aren’t a people person. But hearing you talk about sharing the joy of animals with people, everyone is saying, wait a minute, I think Rodney actually might be a people person. So do you feel like that’s sort of shifted for you over time? Or that animals serve as this buffer, like a lubricant for you, when you’re working with people?
[Rodney Stotts] Yes, I think if the animal wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be there. So it’s the animal. And now, actually, someone else just told me that. They called me a liar. And I said, what do you mean? And they say you said, you’re not a people person. And what I explain to them is I love to see happiness. I love to see joy, whether it’s in an animal, a person. I just love to see someone smiling, someone’s feeling better, something. That aura that comes out. That’s what I look for.
It’s not so much of the person because if it was a bird that was injured, my kids will tell you, we’ve stopped in the middle of the road for many a day, turtle, got everything out of the road, put wounded animals in the car. Then that’s the close up, everything. So I just like to see, every one of us if we really sit down one day and think about all the things that are in our lives, it hurts. A lot of that stuff is painful. So if you were blessed and given a way to give someone something, it didn’t cost you a dime. It didn’t hurt you at all. It didn’t do anything. Why wouldn’t you share that blessing?
So it’s not necessarily so much to the people. I just love happiness. I love to see that happiness. To me, it’s visual. I can see that rainbow around you. I can see those colors. I can see that beauty. That’s the world I just want to live in. That’s all.
[Lisa Kopp] Wonderful. do you want to talk a little bit about because so much of your book and sort of the first conversation that I got to watch you have was sort of specific to falconry. And a lot of your book talks about your falcon, specifically. So do you want to share a little bit about some of your first birds or your most significant birds or anyone, anything now that sort of really special to you?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, all of my birds, all of my animals. I was just asked this the other day, what’s my favorite bird? And I explained to them, I don’t have a favorite animal. I love every single one of them the same. Each one of them serves a purpose in my life that completes me. So I can’t lean on one more than the other. I love them all is the mouse doesn’t mean any more than the bird. There’s none of that. All of them mean the same to me. I love them all. They heal me.
Trust and believe, there’s been many a times that I wanted to give up or I wanted to just do some things that I knew wasn’t in my character anymore. And one of those animals, as you’re walking out the door, you’ll hear them– the horse, something telling you, what are you doing? And you have to stop. You have to turn around you have to go back. So all of them to me is just super. I can’t imagine– when something happens to one of my animals, people will tell you that really know me. It affect me more than something happening to one of my kids, almost.
These are your responsibility. You chose to do this. And they love you, unconditionally, whether you hit the lottery today and won a $10 billion. Or you lost everything tomorrow, and we had to sleep in my car. They’re going to love me just the same. They’re not going to judge me for the mistakes I made, any of that. They’re going to love me the same. That’s why I love my animals the way I do. And that’s why I try to tell people, even down to goldfish, anything. You can find a beauty and joy and peace in it, if you allow yourself. And I just decided to allow myself to feel again, I guess. Sort of like in The Wiz, when what would you do if I could feel? I just want to feel again.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s amazing. Could you share a little bit about the history of falconry? Because it’s like an ancient thing, right? Like the history of it is really in depth. And you do talk about it. There’s a really interesting section in your book, where you share the sort of storied history. But you want to give us a Reader’s Digest version?
[Rodney Stotts] Sure. falconry is the oldest land sport known to man. You think about it, if before guns, before bow and arrow, anything. A rabbit was 300 yards away. How possibly could you get that rabbit? If you had a bird of prey, trapped you a bird, and you trained that bird, that bird makes the kill. That bird is now, you guys have formed a bond. And now you’re helping to feed your family.
So falconry started in China, I believe, it was. And then it moved over to the Middle East. It’s very big in the Middle East. And most of the people over there that have falcons and things of that nature, their birds have passports. So when they fly with their bird, their birds sit in the front seat of an airplane right beside them, as if it was a human passenger. They’re not in a cargo hold or anything like that.
So it’s just the oldest, richest land sport known to man. Now and back in certain times, you had to be noble to fly falcons, though. Because falcons kill before they eat, that was considered to be given a noble death. However, hawks land on it and start eating, while it’s still alive. So that was considered to be barbaric. So any commoner, barbarian, could have a hawk. But you had to be of stature to have a falcon. So like you’ll see these old movies. And you’ll see the people and their marching. And they the Falcon on their hand and things of that nature. Well, one thing, though, the Falcon isn’t going to go attack the person when he says, go get them and come back to him. That’s not going to happen. They’re not golden retrievers. So don’t–
[Rodney Stotts] A lot of people will tell you, the birds were attacking us. No, they weren’t.
[Lisa Kopp] So how do you how do you train a falcon? What goes into that?
[Rodney Stotts] What you do first, you would want to make sure– well, everyone has their own technique. One of the ways that I was taught first was make sure that bird will come back to your glove. Even though you train it to a lure, you still want it to come back to you, to that glove. So your first flight for that bird that day would be to the glove. The last flight would be to the glove. All the flights in between would be to a lure. So you would put a little piece of meat on a lure. And you would hold it. The bird flies over and grabs a hold. Because he thinks it’s a bird or wounded prey animal. Then you can set them back again.
Say, the next day you will then start to rock it back a little, let the bird follow chase to it. Now it’s actually thinking it’s chasing the prey again. So as you’re now starting to spin that lure, when you want the bird to go at it, you will shoot the lure out. Just before the bird gets it, you will pull it down. The bird will stoop, fly in circles, come back again. If the bird happens to touch that lure when you went to pull it back, let him have it. He made that kill. And then put him up for the day and go back the next time. And repetition breeds acceptance. What you do today, you do tomorrow. And the more you work with them, work with them, work with them. To me, it becomes a game that we play on a daily basis because once I bring you out now, and I throw you up, you instantly start making the wild circles. You instantly start doing the things because you know, here comes the lure. And so now, we’re playing our game.
So that’s one of the ways to train them. However, like I say, everyone has their own technique. You have to find what works for them. So there are hundreds of different ways to train them.
[Lisa Kopp] How long does it traditionally take you to– or does it vary, bird to bird?
[Rodney Stotts] Every bird has their own individual identity, just like us. Just because you belong to a species, you’re still an individual. So you may have a bird today. You call them at 9 o’clock this morning. He’s free flying to your glove two days later. You may have another bird you call today. This bird won’t even bend down and eat off your hand for the next two days or three days. So it’s going to take you a little longer to get that bird to trust you.
You have to remember, once that bird bends its head down, it’s submissive. It gives you the back of its neck. So technically, you can kill me. You can injure me. So I have to build that bond enough with you and let hunger take over enough for you to start to bend down and eat. So we can build that trust. And so you understand, I’m not here to hurt you. We’re here to work together. Always let that bird know that we are partners, that you don’t work for me. That bird will eventually leave you, if it feels that it’s doing the work with no reward.
[Lisa Kopp] And what is the dynamic of, then, releasing birds. Because I know that you talked about doing some of that versus having birds stay or rehabilitating birds. You do sort of a mixed approach, right?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, releasing the birds back. A falconer, when you trap the juveniles. Like I say, you only want to take the juveniles. When you go to release that bird back, there’s this feeling that’s– if not exactly equal to when that bird flies to you and land on your glove. Because when you release it there’s this sense of my great, great grandkids will get to see these birds now because of what I’m doing here. Something like that. So it’s a whole different feeling.
What I usually do, when I type a bird or I’m going to release a bird, I’ll go on social media and I’ll let everyone know that I’m going to release the bird. So I’ll say, I’m going to say a prayer. And I’ll put anyone’s names in of people who have loved ones that are sick or going through anything or you just want to say a prayer for them or you’ve lost someone. So I would get numerous responses and people’s names and aunt this and uncle this. And so I would write all of those names down. I would go out. I would go on like Facebook Live or something. And I would film it all, read every name, say the prayer, and then release the bird.
And then people would come back and comment about what it meant to them and how special it was for them, that they were in tears, and things of that nature. And so I just said, well, I mean, it’s not anything that hurt me. It didn’t take up any time. It wasn’t– and it meant something to someone. It made them feel better. And so knowing that they felt better, I felt better, because I can feel my mom and family members and loved ones feeling better, resting easier. So I just felt like that’s what we’re supposed to do. And believe me, even now, you learn a lesson.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so beautiful that you’re not only honoring your loved ones, but allowing other people to participate in the process and honor people that means something to them. So what, I mean– it’s just everyone in the chat and the Q&A is saying the same thing, that your story is so inspiring. And we’re just in awe of what you’ve built and grown over time. And the way that you are able to share it. It really does sort of make this– your energy and enthusiasm is contagious. I’m sure all of the 800 plus people tuning in are feeling it right now. So thank you for sharing it with us.
[Rodney Stotts] Thank you.
[Lisa Kopp] So there are some questions about how you look at feeding your birds and being such an animal lover, is it is it ever hard for you to? How do the birds of prey, especially, eat. You mentioned that you’ve got mice. So is that ever hard for you, this like the balance of some animals are ultimately eaten by others?
[Rodney Stotts] No, it’s because it’s nature. I don’t want to do anything, especially if I’m going to release that bird, I don’t want to do anything to that bird that’s not natural. So in nature, this is what would have happened. The one good thing about being a falconer, though, when you catch a bird, you get your mice and things from NIH. So there is no poisonous, contaminants. They are farm-raised mice, things of that nature. So you’re not taking the risk of your birds getting poisoned or anything like that, while they’re in your care.
Once you release that bird, now it’s back into the wild and everything. So if I had to, technically, kill something else that’s not natural for them to feed them, then I would have a problem with it. However, that’s what they naturally do. So if it’s something that they would do and eat, then I can’t deny that. Because if you take that away from their diet, you’re actually hurting that bird in the long run. So you want to go ahead and let them have that variety because you’re not just going to give them mice the whole time. You actually hunt that bird, during the time that you have them. So when you release that bird, that bird is used to hunting. And it becomes a wild bird again. Once you let them catch that kill, you’ll go get in your car and leave, take everything off of them. You leave them.
If that bird saw you again, that bird should never fly back to you again. Once that bird hunts again on its own, it doesn’t need you anymore. And then you don’t even want to look for them because the last image is he’s on his way to a great life. Or she’s on her way to a great life. So that’s what you want. You get in your car and leave.
[Lisa Kopp] Is that hard? Is that really an emotional moment for you? I mean, I feel like it would be so hard.
[Rodney Stotts] That’s like watching your kid go off to college. And then you got to get back in the car. But the only difference is you just know they’re not come back home. So when you get home and you see an empty room. Oh, yeah, party now. So yeah, when are you going, oh, trust me. You’re going to shed– the roughest, toughest people, who I’ve been around. I’ve pulled up on guys that would sit there, “Man, I’d kill my mother. I’d shoot this.” Pull that bird out. “Oh, my, that’s an eagle!” No, man, it’s a hawk.
And then you you ask them, you say what’s that feeling you got right now? And they’re sitting there like a kid in a candy store. And you say, tell me that feeling any better than the one you had 30 seconds ago. 30 seconds ago, you were sitting here, “grrr,” chest all out. Now you’re sitting there like a little schoolgirl. But you feel good, though. “Man, that thing look like it can do this. Oh, my God.” There you go. Anything I want to talk to you about, I got your attention now.
So they break down color barriers, financial barriers, religion, doesn’t matter. When I pull that bird out, we’re going to converse.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s so powerful. That’s amazing. So how can people help you and what you’re doing? I know that you said Dippy’s Dream is coming to be something as an option for people now. But really, fully open sometime in July. I know there’s just so much enthusiasm over what you’re doing. And I want to make sure that we channel support back to your efforts and what you’re working on.
[Rodney Stotts] I would definitely. If you go to the website and you send me an email or something, I definitely will contact you back immediately, as soon as possible. And anyone that wants to come down and volunteer and help out some time, I’ll be more than glad to host you. You want to come out and you want to camp out overnight, bring your sleeping bag. Bring your tent. I have like I said, you got somewhere, I have the dogs here. So you don’t have to worry about that.
Now I do tell people one thing to always remember, you’re in the woods. You’re in bear country. You’re in snake country. You’re out in nature. So don’t think we are going to the Holiday Inn, and there’s going to be this big floor model TV set in there in this flat screen, no. It’s all about getting back in touch with nature. And so one of the things that we’ll be starting to do, hopefully, in July, when we open up, is survival courses, where we teach people, actually, what plants and stuff are good to eat. What we have are out in the woods. You’ll know what’s edible and what’s not, how to identify poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, how to start a fire, how to build a small shelter, things of that nature.
Because if the computers go down right now, the world would go crazy.
That call got interrupted, you guys will be sitting there, “what do we do? What do we do? What do we do?” So you’ve got to be prepared. So we already have the backup ready to go.
[Lisa Kopp] That sounds so cool. Yeah, I mean, like the foraging stuff, the survivalist stuff. These are all skills that we’ve all totally lost, right? That is great. Well, I can’t wait to hear and learn more about all of the stuff that you’re going to be doing this summer and over the next few months. We have a lot of questions in the Q&A. And we won’t be able to address all of them. But is there anything that you sort of want to share that we didn’t talk about or any sort of parting messages that you want to get out there?
[Rodney Stotts] Well, as a parting message, I would just say that if you are able to make someone smile, even if it’s buying them a cup of coffee one morning, make somebody smile. Watch what it does for you. Look at them, the appreciation. Watch when you get in your car, that feeling that’s there for you, that it was just an act of kindness. That’s it. You didn’t want anything. You didn’t want any recognition for it. You went to the counter. The guy was at the counter making his coffee. And you turned around and said, hey, I’m going to pay for that coffee right there.
So when that guy got up to the counter, and he goes to pay for it. No, the guy in front of you already paid for it. And he’s standing there. And that feeling that he got, you gave him. Over $1. Tell me you couldn’t do that for somebody. That would be my thing, just make somebody happy, even if you’re not. It will make you happy to see somebody else smile.
The loss like what we were talking about. Trust me, I’ve suffered a lot of loss. When my mom died, we had four deaths in four days. My mom died Sunday. Aunt died Monday. My cousin died Tuesday. Aunt died Wednesday. And my animals kept me sane. Seeing other people, as much pain as I was in, I knew that someone else lost theirs that day. And they were in just as much pain as I was. So when I made them smile, I can feel my brothers and aunts and moms and everybody. Go, baby. Don’t you dare stop.
And so if you truly. You die twice. Once when you physically die and the last time someone mentions your name. We don’t let people die twice. And so that’s why all the animals are named after the loved ones and stuff like that. When someone dies, the first thing we say is they’re up there looking down. OK, well, where your birds? Up there, doing what? Looking down on you. So when you look up, who do you see? That bird that’s named after your mother, your brother, your cousin. So you’re never alone. So even on your darkest moment, try to make somebody else happy.
[Lisa Kopp] Thank you. It’s absolutely wonderful to hear your words. And to hear your story and for you to take the time to share it with all of us. I really, really appreciate it.
[Rodney Stotts] Oh, no, thank you guys for having me. Like I say, I’m blessed. Thank you guys, truly. It’s an honor to be here. I worked with you guys before. I miss you guys. You guys got to come out here and ride the horses and get some work in with us.
[Lisa Kopp] That would be great. I would love that. And I just want to encourage everybody to check out your book because you talked about some of the people in your life that you continue to honor. And you get to learn more about those people in your book. And your voice comes through. And the story of your life is really incredible, all of the ups and downs that you’ve been through.
So we’ll put in the chat how people can get that. And for those of you who would like to share this conversation with others, if you registered over Zoom, we’ll be sending a follow up email that will include the link to this recorded talk. So we hope that you will share this widely and spread the joy that is Rodney and his passion and love for animals.
And thank you again, Rodney, for being here today and for sharing your story with us and for doing the really amazing work that you do.
[Rodney Stotts] Thank you, guys. It was my pleasure, truly.
[Lisa Kopp] All right, well, thanks, everyone. Hope you have a good rest of your day. And thanks again, Rodney. Talk to you soon.
[Rodney Stotts] Thank you, guys.
[Lisa Kopp] OK, bye.End of transcript
Join us as we welcome back Rodney Stotts, one of America’s few Black master falconers, to celebrate the release of his first book, Bird Brother which revolves around pursuing dreams against all odds, and the importance of second chances. Listen as Rodney shares his story as a Black child facing dangerous threats to transforming his life through the healing power of nature. Rodney reminds us that no matter how much heartbreak we have endured, we still have the capacity to give back to our communities and follow our wildest dreams.