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High Demand For Songbirds Encourages Some To Attempt Smuggling

NOEL KING, HOST:

A special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleges this curious thing happened. A man took 35 finches. He stuffed each little bird into an individual hair curler, then taped those curlers inside his jacket and pant legs and then boarded a plane from Guyana to New York City, where he was arrested for wildlife smuggling. I talked to Kimon de Greef, who's reported on what's driving the demand for finches in New York.

KIMON DE GREEF: In the small country of Guyana in South America and several neighboring countries, there's a pretty old tradition of using wild songbirds for singing competitions. And there is demand among the Guyanese diaspora for these birds for use in these very elaborate and quite secretive singing competitions.

KING: Where do the singing competitions happen, and what do they look like?

DE GREEF: Mostly in New York City at a park in Richmond Hill in Queens. The men get together there early in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays. I say men because it's a very male - very masculine kind of subculture - sport, hobby, whatever you want to call it. A finch singing competition is essentially two birds in cages. They're really small. They get placed on a metal pole driven into the ground. These birds, as soon as they see each other, they begin singing to defend their territory; they're male birds. The song is very sweet, but the birds are actually being quite fierce and saying, get out of my face. This is my spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thirty-eight, 39...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thirty-eight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Forty.

DE GREEF: The men gather around them. And there's two referees who stand, and they count bursts of birdsong. And the first bird to hit 50 is judged the winner. One guy was describing his bird's song to me. And he said it's like a jab and a hard punch, you know, like a combo - one, two - and that the rival would hear that and maybe stop to get its breath and lose the race.

KING: This is fascinating. When you interviewed the men in Queens and you asked them about the importance culturally, what did they tell you? What did these competitions mean?

DE GREEF: Well, it was pretty interesting that this is the wildlife trade driven by a diaspora who are taking a tradition from home to a new landscape. Guys that I spoke to, they're working-class men mostly. They work in construction or putting air conditioners in hospitals during the pandemic. They just say this reminds them of home. This is what their parents did in Guyana when they were growing up. These guys have created a kind of diaspora ritual around doing this in New York.

KING: What is the actual harm that finch smugglers are doing? Like, why do the federal authorities care so much.

DE GREEF: My understanding is that one of the main concerns is around the risk of avian diseases. The finches don't come out of this in the best shape always. There are reports of finches dying on the journey. And the bird species known in Guyana as the towa towa bird, in certain areas where demand is high - so around the capital city, Georgetown, for example, the reports are that you used to see these birds flying around everywhere, and now they've thinned out because of demand both in Guyana and in the United States. And a champion bird can sell for between 3,000 and, I've heard, $9,000. Apparently, 9,000 is a huge...

KING: Ooh.

DE GREEF: ...Huge exception. But there's potentially really good money in here because it's also a big status thing if you own a champion finch and you become king of the park. I met a guy who had just become king of the park several months ago, and he was sort of in shock. And he said he'd been working towards it for three years.

KING: Kimon de Greef is a freelance reporter based in New York. Thank you, Kimon, for bringing us this interesting report. And we really appreciate it.

DE GREEF: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "FALLORUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.