Rodney Stotts is a master falconer and the founder of Rodney’s Raptors, which strives to create transformative opportunities that connect youth to the environment and community. Kate Pipkin is a writer and editor in Baltimore who worked with Stotts on his book Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife. In this excerpt, Stotts recalls caring for four eaglets in 1994 and the impact the experience had on him.
“Yo, yo, yo,” I called, running up the metal ramp to the old pump house and flinging open the door. “The eagles are coming, the eagles are coming.”
Everyone laughed, and so did I. This was a big day for the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) and for all of us who had worked so hard to get to this point.
Bob Nixon had finally been given permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring four young eagles from Wisconsin to Southeast D.C. and place them in an artificial nest in a poplar tree on property owned by the National Arboretum. He was on his way from the airport, where he and a few members of our crew had gone to pick up the eagles. The rest of us were waiting at the pump house.
The Capitol Power Plant Pump House is the office for ECC, but it wasn’t always that way. It was built in 1903 and was used to turn water from the Anacostia River into steam heat for the U.S. Capitol. Over the decades, though, industry began to grow and pollution spread its dirty tentacles into the Anacostia and the air above, choking everything in its path. I imagined the pollution and poison of those years as a greenish, gaseous monster of sorts, wrapping its arms around Southeast D.C. and trying to smother us all. It almost succeeded.
The Anacostia became so sick with trash and pollution that the water couldn’t even be turned into steam anymore. Think of what little effort it takes to put a kettle of water on the stove and heat it until steam comes up. Now, imagine water so slogged down with debris and slime that steam can’t even rise out of it. That’s why, around 1950, the Capitol Power Plant Pump House was abandoned, and there it sat, home to only die-hard weeds and whatever trash would blow into it.
In 1993, Bob Nixon showed the city all of the amazing work our team was doing, and he convinced them to give the pump house to ECC. Clearing away decades of brush and renovating the decrepit pump house into our office was a bit much, even for our dogged group, so we partnered with some area corporations and community organizations that donated supplies and volunteers. The word was starting to spread about the difference we were making, and people wanted to be part of our efforts. That was fine with us. We could use all the help that came our way. It felt a little strange having an actual office, because the Anacostia River had been the only office we knew, but it also made us feel like we were finally legit.
“They’re here,” someone shouted. Bob pulled the van up to the pump house and we ran out to the narrow ramp that we called “the catwalk.” He unlocked the back of the van and pulled out two dog carriers, each with two young eagles in it. I was straining to get a look.
The eaglets were about two months old and had come from a sanctuary in Wisconsin. Generally, adult female eagles lay one, two, or three eggs. Sometimes the mother pushes the smallest egg out of the nest because she thinks it won’t survive. That’s some tough love, all right. The sanctuary in Wisconsin rescues those eggs and incubates them in nests made by humans but designed to feel and look like real eagles’ nests. When the eaglets hatch, the rescuers use a puppet made to look like an eagle to feed them. When the eagles grow to between two and three months, they’re sent to people like us, who are trying to grow the population of bald eagles.
Eagles have been off the endangered species list since 1997 and have made a remarkable comeback in many U.S. states, especially Wisconsin. They had been put on the endangered list in the 1970s, when heavy pesticide use and human carelessness and indifference (what else is new?) practically wiped out this natural treasure. Over the years, DDT was banned, federal and state laws protecting endangered species were enacted, and public awareness grew thanks to innovations like nest cams — and the bald eagle made its comeback. I was proud to be part of an effort to bring the bald eagle back to the nation’s capital.
I peered into the crates and was surprised to see that the young eagles just looked like big brown birds. Where were the golden beaks and the powerful white heads? Bob explained that eagles go through several phases when they are growing and that it takes four to five years for them to become adults. In the first phase — which these young dudes were still in — they have dark heads, dark feathers, and their bellies are white with some brown spots. The juvenile eagles enter the next phase in their second and third years. During this time their bellies become mostly white but still have some brown flecks, and their heads and feathers are still dark. Once they reach adulthood, their beaks turn that well known golden yellow and their heads become snowy white. It was hard for me to imagine that these rug rats would one day turn into mighty bald eagles.
Now came the hard part: We had to hoist the hack box — the artificial nest — up into the tree we had chosen and then get the young eagles into it.
Hacking is the method used to simulate a natural eagle’s nest by using an artificial nesting tower. Eagles generally return to the area where they were raised and fledged — or at least within 75 miles of it — when they are mature and ready to reproduce. Eagles’ nests have sticks around the edges and soft material such as moss or plant leaves inside on the floor of the nest. The idea behind hacking is to make the eaglets think they are in a real nest and being fed by their parents. If all goes as planned, once our young eagles reach adulthood, they will stay in the same general area and hatch their eggs. That’s how we would slowly build up the population.
We had hired a contractor to make the hack box and the nest inside so that we could be sure we had the exact dimensions and materials that would work. The outer box had a door so we could put the eagles inside and release them when we were ready. It had slats along the top where we would drop in food for them.
We grabbed some tools and other materials, put the eagles back in Bob’s van, and climbed in the back with them. Waiting for us at the site was one of the partners who had helped us with the pump house renovation and who had agreed to lend us a cherry picker.
Using a clothesline pulley system, we hoisted the hack box up into the air until it was near the top of the tree. Our buddy with the cherry picker helped secure it between branches. Then we sent the pet carriers up the pulley, one at a time. Finally, the eagles were in the nest and the hack box door was shut. This had to happen quickly, because the idea was not to let the young eagles see any humans so they wouldn’t imprint on us or identify with us as a species. They don’t break out of the egg knowing who they are; they have to learn that they are mighty eagles, not goofy humans.
We quietly high-fived one another once the eagles were safely in their nest. We were exhausted, but the day’s work wasn’t finished yet.
Anthony and Burrell volunteered to do the first feeding. We had bought some freshly caught fish, and Anthony and Burrell took the fish out of a cooler and put them in a bucket. The rest of us watched from a small clearing in the woods as they secured the bucket to the pulley and slowly hoisted it up to the hack box, being careful not to spill any. Once the bucket was hovering above the hack box, they had to pull on a rope attached to the system, tipping the bucket and dropping the food into the eagles’ mouths so they thought it was coming from their mother. It was a hard job that required precision and patience.
After the eagles had had their first meal in the hack box, we stood silently in the woods for a few minutes and just looked at one another. This was a solemn moment. Even before the eagles arrived, we had decided as a group that we would name one of them Monique, after our murdered crew member. We felt her spirit among the trees that day, like she was cheering us on, and we all cried — even me and Anthony.
We took turns feeding the juvenile eagles. Tink fed the eagles as well, but he volunteered to also fill in the logbook with information about the birds, such as what time they were fed, what they ate, and any activity he observed. I didn’t have the patience for that. Tink would sit for hours, observing the eagles and making notations in the logbook. All of this continued for about two months, until it was finally time to set them free.
We were nervous, and we knew it would take time. It’s not like we would just open the door and watch the four eagles flying off majestically into the sunset, like some Disney movie. Juvenile eagles don’t just take off and start flying. They have to learn. Like humans: We crawl first, and then comes our walking and running. Eagles engage in a process called branching. For several weeks, they hop from branch to branch in their home tree. They flap their wings a few times to test them out, like kicking the tires on a new car.
From our hidden spot in the woods, we watched our eagles start branching. More than once we had to cover our mouths to keep from laughing out loud, because the eagles were so goofy. One flapped its wings and then awkwardly stumbled to the next branch below. Like when a baby starts to walk, he sways back and forth, tries to take the next step, but instead falls on his butt.
For the next two to three weeks, we continued to sneak fish into the nest, until all four started flying. Once they had the flying part down, they would be able to hunt on their own.
“Maybe this eagle reintroduction thing might work after all, here on the Anacostia,” I thought. I imagined how, maybe in several years, eagles would be a regular part of the wildlife in Southeast D.C. And it would be because of us.
I had never been a part of something so amazing in my life, and I was learning that nature in general is complex and simple at the same time. Complex because it can be so hard for us to imitate it — like with making the hacking box — but simple because life just keeps happening over and over, and because nature is resilient. That is how I felt some days: tough and resilient. In spite of everything that had happened to me, like my father being murdered when I was 15, me getting shot at in a drive-by, seeing friends killed by rival gunfire, watching men I knew hauled off to jail, I was still here. Like those young eagles — still here. I was learning what resilience really meant.
This story is part of Fix’s Outdoors Issue, which explores how we build connections to nature, why those connections matter, and how equitable access to outside spaces is a vital climate solution.
Explore more from the Outdoors Issue:
- How outdoor experiences have shaped today’s climate and justice leaders
- An urban nature tour reveals how to find wild spaces, even in cities
- This educator designs curricula to make nature inclusive for all kids