Wednesday, October 20

‘You care about the birds and they heal you’: the film outlines the world of a black falconer | Birds

Falconry is a profession with roots in the ancient Middle East and medieval Europe, but one of its practitioners is making his own history.

Rodney Stotts is one of the few black falconers in the United States. He works with raptors like the Red-tailed Hawks and Harris’s Hawks, as well as an owl named Mr Hoots. It is now the subject of a new documentary directed by Annie Kaempfer, The Falconer, which was screened at the Atlanta film festival ahead of the second annual edition. Black Birdwatchers Week (an event created after a white woman called the police at a black bird watcher in Central Park in New York last year, sparking a national outcry.)

Stotts has seen his work affected by the Covid pandemic and is moving from his previous raptor sanctuary in Laurel, Maryland, to Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia. The new site takes its name from its late mother’s nickname: Dippy’s Dream. Stotts spoke to The Guardian about honoring his mother through his new project, the importance of exposing himself to falconry in downtown DC, and mentoring the next generation of black falconers.

Rodney Stotts teaches student Javiare Harris how to pick up his eagle owl, Mr Hoots.
Rodney Stotts teaches student Javiare Harris how to pick up his eagle owl, Mr Hoots. Photography: Annie Kaempfer

How does someone become a master falconer?

To become a falconer, you have to find someone who has been a general falconer for three years or a master falconer to sponsor you. Once you have a sponsor, you do a test. His aviary is inspected and the sponsor takes him to catch a bird. Then there is a one to two year apprenticeship, and the sponsor writes about whether he should be promoted to general falconer.

Once this is done, you can have different birds for a few months. You have been a general falconer for five years. After five years and some paperwork, you become a master falconer. It takes seven years to become a master falconer and then you will be for the rest of your life, as long as you reapply each year.

What skills should a master falconer have? And what do you learn?

Being a falconer is going to teach you everything. It will break you. You can be the toughest person in the world and yet that will bring you down and rebuild you. Birds just look at you, and you have to learn patience, deal with difficult situations, think critically in difficult times. Everything about who you are is going to change.

Can you talk about what it’s like to find the next generation of young black people who are interested in becoming master falconers?

Downtown, in DC, they don’t have falconers there. You never see a falconer because there is no talk, there is no exposure. But once people see [a falconer], it’s not “there’s another black boy.” Come a falconer, period. Then they see that it is someone who looks like them. It is not the other way around.

As for birds, it doesn’t matter what color their skin looks like to them.

Children say, “I didn’t know there were red-tailed hawks.” They believe that every bird is an eagle. The kestrel, the smallest raptor in America, was seen as an eagle. But once they are exposed to it, there is encouragement, exposure, enthusiasm. That’s when I get excited. In the documentary, I say, “you never know who the next raptor specialist is”, you don’t have to be a falconer. You care about the birds and they heal you. It’s amazing.

Rodney Stotts holds his hawk, James
Rodney Stotts holds his hawk, James. Photography: Colleen Kwok

How is work going on your current project, Dippy’s Dream?

It is coming. I found another three and a half acres, three wooded acres to finish logging, and a small three-acre camp. So we are dividing up the actual campground, sealing off a bit of the trees around it so that there is a little privacy.

I was working a job with a raptor program at a sanctuary at Oak Hill Juvenile Detention Center, a DC youth detention center. When the Covid-19 pandemic occurred, [it affected] all jobs. I lost mine, the place closed. It led me to understand that I did not always work for someone else. It was my chance to start Dippy’s Dream. What I wanted was to move on.

My mom had already passed away [when I made the purchase]. I really wanted to do something on his behalf; she always wanted a house with children to come home [it]. He grew up on a farm with animals. He knew how healing they could be. There would be a playground where people could go out. It would be free. Basically, you could donate what you can afford … Because you might think you can’t afford it and you don’t deserve it. You may not have $ 500 to pay to enjoy the experience of horseback riding, dealing with birds, sitting in nature.

It appears that the pandemic has caused you to make these changes.

Oh yeah. He closed everything. Ninety-nine percent of what I do is face-to-face, up close, and in person, get a child to see the birds, hold a bird. The pandemic stopped all of that. It closed me down for a whole year or so.

What parts of work do you enjoy the most?

Just showing people my birds to see them smile. I have a picture of my mom holding one of my birds. Whenever I fly the bird that bears her name, she is only with me. It is your healing side.

At the end of the day, my legacy, I want it to be what I helped. I’ve done enough damage already. That’s the one thing I would like people to realize. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, whoever it is … it doesn’t matter where you started or what you’ve been through. You can always come out last if you believe.

The Falconer will premiere on PBS in the United States on June 1. Black Birdwatchers Week takes place from May 30 to June 5

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