birdman

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It can be frustrating at times, and I think maybe my job doesn’t make a difference, because Southeast DC’s issues are so ingrained. But other days, I think if I can motivate even one kid to put down their gun and look for something else, then maybe I’ve succeeded.

Since leading Wings Over America and Rodney’s Raptors, the number of presentations and talks I’ve been invited to give has increased. People seem naturally drawn to the awe-inspiring beauty and power of raptors. Regardless of origin, age or culture, people are fascinated by large birds. For example, every year I am invited to bring my birds to the annual Monegasque nation pow-wow held in Elon, Virginia. Members of the Monegasque nation have inhabited parts of Virginia, particularly Amherst County, for over 10,000 years. They understand the majesty of raptors and always ask me to come back. I take my birds to block parties, events at the Anacostia watershed, and even parties for the Washington Nationals, DC Major League Baseball team.

For the past several years, I have demonstrated at the Patuxent Research Refuge, located on over 1,200 acres of land between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Established over 80 years ago, the refuge surrounds the Patuxent and Little Patuxent Rivers and teems with wildlife, from tiny insects to deer and eagles. Its mission is to conserve and protect natural habitats through research, education and wildlife management techniques.

The sanctuary is home to over 60 species of water and shore birds, over a hundred species of land birds, almost countless mammals from the little brown bat to the long-tailed weasel, as well as all kinds of amphibians, fish, reptiles, butterflies and assorted insects. And of course many native plants and trees. It’s like this huge outdoor research lab.

When I walk around the grounds of the refuge, I feel like I am in my own natural habitat. I breathe the pure air and let the sights and sounds nourish my soul. Sometimes I take a deep breath, and in that little space just before I exhale, I imagine some of that wild air is still inside me, circulating in my blood.

THE PREVIOUS I HAD SHOWED MR. HOOTS to Shondra and her classmates, and today I’m on my way to Patuxent. One of the missions of the refuge center is to educate young and old and help them interact directly with wildlife. This is where I come in. Patuxent hosts a visitor day, where staff members and researchers demonstrate and point out wildlife habitats. Mr. Hoots and Agnes are in luggage racks in the back of my van. They are my wisest raptors, so I often use them for teaching.

I enter the property from Powder Mill Road and walk down the winding one-lane road to the Visitor Center. The parking attendant sees me approaching and waves at me.

“Birdman, how are you?”

“Fine, I’m fine,” I said. Many people in Patuxent and elsewhere call me “the birdman”; some don’t even know my real name.

I grab the porters and my glove and head to the back of the building, where it’s a little quieter, and the birds won’t be nervous. It’s a sunny and unusually warm October day – the kind of fall day that has the last taste of summer on its lips. It feels good, but I also look forward to the colder days when I can hunt with my birds.

In the United States, falconers identify and trap immature birds, care for them, and eventually release them into the wild. According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, 90% of wild hawks and hawks do not survive their first winter. They crash into buildings or fences, or get hit by trucks or cars, so protecting them through that first winter gives them a greater chance of surviving and reproducing.

I catch a new juvenile every winter. Once I trap one, I take it home, put the anklets and jesses on it, and start working with that particular bird. Then, usually that spring, I’ll take that bird hunting. Once the bird has killed, I get in the car and leave.

I keep Agnès in her baby carrier and put her in a room in the reception centre. I put on my glove and pull Mr. Hoots out of his baby carrier. We sit in the sun on a low wall surrounding a patio. From there, I look out over the Patuxent River and watch a flock of Canada geese flying low, honking their horns at each other, which always seems sad to me. Canada geese mate for life. Every time I see them flying in their V formation, I count how many there are. If it’s an even number, chances are they’re all with their buddies. An odd number means someone is flying alone, like me.

I have to be here at the shelter for three hours, giving 20 minute presentations with 10 minute breaks in between.

One of the shelter’s volunteer guides comes around the corner with the first group, made up of a dozen Asian-American children and adults. I don’t know if they’re all family or friends, but it doesn’t matter. They want to be here. And, like clockwork, when kids see Mr. Hoots, they start pointing and jumping up and down.

They sit in a semi-circle around me, and the guide introduces me. The children appear to be between six and ten years old. I introduce them to Mr. Hoots.

“How old is he?” shouts a child.

“It’s one of the amazing things about nature and wildlife. It’s always color blind.

“Mr. Hoots here is 26,” I say, waving my arm up and down a little, prompting the owl to spread its wings. and it waves to you. In the wild, this type of owl can survive up to about 30 years, but in captivity it lives longer. The oldest in captivity that I have heard of lived 65 years.

“Why is his name Mr. Hoots?” asks another.

“Because that’s what he does all night,” I said, hooting. Then Mr. Hoots answers and the children laugh. “If he lived with you, you should put cotton in your ears every night because his hooting would keep you awake.”

The 20 minutes passes quickly and the guide returns with another group of about four small families, two African American and two white. It’s one of the amazing things about nature and wildlife: it’s always color blind. He is there for all of us, regardless of color, age or origin. Somewhere along the way, humans started thinking we were better than animals and birds, better than land, and we got high thinking we could control it. Power and control are just as addictive as heroin and cocaine. This has led to the destruction of habitats and overdeveloped areas. We have already destroyed so much of this planet. Sometimes I feel like the role I’m playing is too small, that I need to do more, but I haven’t figured out what more is yet.

Families settle in and I run my demonstration with Mr. Hoots.

“Do you all want to see another bird?” I ask. Of course, the children applaud and the adults applaud. I take Mr. Hoots inside, put him in his baby carrier and let Agnes out.

As docile as Agnes is, with her broad shoulders and pointed beak, she seems intimidating to those who don’t know her.

“Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?” I ask. The children in this group are older than those in the last group.

“A falcon,” said a boy.

“That’s a good guess,” I said, “but Agnes here is a Harris Hawk.”

“How do you know that’s what she is?”

I turn Agnes over and show them the coppery feathers on her tail.

“There are also other ways of saying it,” I said. “See how his chest is a little big? That’s another way of saying it. Most hawks aren’t that big. And the feathers on their shoulders are usually in the shape of a white letter V.

One of the mothers now raises her hand. “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“So there are different kinds of hawks?” »

“Oh yes,” I reply. “And they all have different traits and identifying marks. Take Harris’s Falcon, for example. He learns quickly and has an excellent memory – probably better than yours or mine. They have long legs and sometimes, if there are not many trees around, they stand on top of each other to better spot their prey; they work in groups.

I explain how the more they search and search for large raptors, the easier it becomes to tell them apart.

At the end of the day, I pack up Mr. Hoots and Agnes, put them in the van, and visit the Patuxent employees for a bit. Everyone who works or volunteers at Patuxent wants to be here, just like me. The ebb and flow of nature runs through our blood.

I go back to Laurel, put Mr. Hoots and Agnes in, let my dog ​​Munna out, feed the horses, and watch the sun go down.

I’ve been a general falconer for about five years now. In a few months, I will reach my status as a master falconer. The last stage of my falconry journey. What will happen next for me? I started to feel restless because I’m ready for the next big thing in my life, the next piece of the puzzle to fall into place. I don’t know what it is yet. I know what this will include: raptors, animals, wide open spaces and helping children. Of course, that’s what I do now. Is it possible to do all of this on a larger and more immense level? And what would that even look like? I am determined to find out.

This article was adapted from Stotts and Pipkin’s new book, Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife. It was reproduced with permission from Island Press, Washington, DC.

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