Book review: “Bird Brother—A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife” by climate champion–Rodney Stotts. Plus the rebirth of San Francisco’s salt marshes.
Book Review: “Bird Brother—A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife”, Climate Champ–Rodney Stotts, Rebirth of San Francisco’s Salt Marshes
BOOK REVIEW: BIRD BROTHER—A FALCONER’S JOURNEY AND THE HEALING POWER OF WILDLIFE
“Once we understand the wild things, we understand ourselves. At least, that’s what ended up happening with me.” That’s a quote from Rodney Stotts, author of Bird Brother—A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife. One thinks Stott is referring to the Blue Herons, bald eagles and ultimately also the falcons he trains. But he just might be describing his own hero’s journey, too.
Despite living in Washington, DC, one of the greenest cities in America, replete with parks throughout all of its four quadrants, and situated on two rivers—the Potomac and the Anacostia—Stott’s world revolved around drugs and crime.
He writes that he only attended a community job fair because he needed a job that would generate paychecks and W-2 forms so he could get his own apartment, all in order to move more drugs and stockpile more guns. A new non-profit, Earth Conservation Corps offered him a gig cleaning up the Anacostia. Because working outdoors sounded better to him, he took that instead of the other offer—maintenance man.
Hauling tires, old bikes, mattresses, car engines and other junk out of the Anacostia was eye-opening. He describes how his fellow crew members, all of whom came from the projects of Southeast Washington, cheered when a great blue heron landed on a spot on Lower Beaverdam Creek that they had cleaned up.
He writes, “It was amazing how, after just a few weeks, we could see the bottom of the tributary and the water was beginning to flow.” Stott goes on to describe how his boss’s pledge to bring bald eagles back to DC got him permanently hooked on the outdoors, and birds.
A prison stint interrupted his journey, but ECC took him back to train new recruits once he was released. Says Stott, “I knew exactly where these kids were coming from: broken homes, violence, drug-addicted parents, crappy schools, and the temptations of the streets. Maybe I had something to share. Maybe I could show them how nature and wildlife can save them, if they would just open their minds and let it all in.”
And that’s why this book matters to us. Through his journey—one of stops, starts and detours—he figures out how to break a trail that doesn’t lead to drug use or life in prison. And how to model that for others on the same desolate trail.
Bird Brother—A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife. Find it wherever good books are sold.
CLIMATE CHAMPION, RODNEY STOTTS
Rodney Stotts is a falconer and licensed raptor specialist from South East Washington DC. You heard correctly. I did say “licensed raptor specialist”. I mean, how cool is that? A former staff of the Earth Conservation Corps, he is a mentor and youth community leader. Mr. Stotts creates transformative opportunities that connect youth to the environment and community.
According to Stotts, falconry is important in two ways; it saves the lives of raptors and helps to keep the population healthy and it crosses all color, socioeconomic and ethnic barriers. Through his work, he makes the powerful connection between endangered species of all kinds that include the Bald Eagle in DC to local youth who must navigate survival in a stressed community.
The Earth Conservation Corps currently employs its raptors to engage local youth in environmental education activities. Why does his work as a falconer matter to us? In his own words, “Falconry can help build character, compassion and caring. Its importance is immeasurable. It changes lives.”
The reality is many urban youth are only exposed to wildlife and nature in terms of roaches, rats, pigeons, and insects. They’re the only natural things you tend to find in treeless, parkless, cemented, urban environments, which means they see Nature as a threat. Particularly when urban youth are exposed to the natural world by somebody who looks like them, their fear of nature subsides, their willingness to engage with nature increases, and their desire to preserve nature grows.
The more folks who want to preserve nature, the better it is for all of us!
THE REBIRTH OF SAN FRANCISCO’S SALT MARSHES
In 2003, the multinational corporation Cargill sold more than 60 square kilometers of its South Bay salt ponds—most, but not all, of its holdings—to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, California State Coastal Conservancy, and the California Department of Fish and Game. This sale launched the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (SBSPRP). In the decades since, a consortium of more than a dozen nonprofits and state and federal agencies have collaborated to return much of the area to tidal marsh by mid-century. In doing so, they hope to re-create habitat for beleaguered native species, restore the coastline’s natural flood resilience, and improve the overall quality of the South Bay’s coastal ecosystems.
Salt ponds have a history in the South Bay, stretching nearly as far back as the wetlands themselves. Around 3,000 years ago, as the rapid rate of sea level rise driven by the end of the last ice age began to slow, marsh plants took hold along the edges of the bay. Farther inland, bay water, filling natural depressions only during the highest winter tides, evaporated under the late-summer sun, leaving behind large natural salt deposits.
Long before Europeans arrived, Ohlone people crystallized salt on willow twigs, or burned small patches of marsh plants to reap the salty ash left behind. Such harvests were bountiful enough to not only enrich the Ohlone’s own food, but to trade with other tribes throughout the region.
Spanish colonists would eventually enslave the Ohlone, using them to cultivate salt for sale in Europe. Centuries of salt marsh exploitation and artificial salt marsh development decimated natural flora and fauna.
By the time Cargill sold most of its ponds to the State of California, San Francisco Bay’s estuary was in dire straits. Between 80 and 95 percent of tidal wetlands had been degraded or developed.
To date, around 12 square kilometers have been restored to tidal wetlands and 2.8 square kilometers of ponds have been enhanced. Just as the first plants 3,000 years ago provided the foundation for the wetlands—and all the biodiversity they support—these initial plantings are bringing life back to the landscape.
Why should salt marsh restoration matter to us? A study from the US Geological Survey found that between 2002 and 2014, the number of overwintering waterbirds (both waterfowl and shorebirds) that stopped over in the project area more than doubled. By comparison, in nearby ponds still owned by Cargill for salt production, there was virtually no change in waterbird visitation over roughly the same period.