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Songbirds Trapped, Traded On Black Market In South Florida

Songbirds, like indigo buntings, are becoming more popular for illegal trapping and selling within the pet industry. State wildlife officials are trying to stop it.

Songbirds are known for their beautiful bright-colored feathered coats and for their melodious and upbeat songs, which South Floridians can hear on most summertime mornings. 

But there is another important detail to know about these small creatures: they're often trapped, smuggled and traded throughout the region. 

A recent National Geographic investigation looks at songbird hunters in Miami who snatch the birds from Florida's forests as they stop and rest during their migration from South America and then sell them as pets or to sing in money-making competitions.

The songbirds can be sold "for hundreds of dollars" according to Dina Fine Maron, a wildlife trade investigative reporter at National Geographic. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 40 protected bird species in Florida are routinely trapped, mostly songbirds like indigo buntings. In February state wildlife officials drafted a rule to protect Florida's native songbirds from illegal capture. The rule included regulations regarding the use, placement and possession of bird traps. It goes into effect on Oct. 3.

For the National Geographic investigation, Maron followed a wildlife officer as he caught two hunters participating in the illegal trade. She talked to Luis Hernandez on Sundial about the fines and penalties for the trafficking of these birds and how this practice is linked to South Florida’s Cuban culture. 

This has been edited lightly for clarity. 

WLRN: At what point did you realize that there is a massive black market for songbirds?

MARON: One of the things that really surprised me and made me realize the scale of it was when I started learning about the songbird competition angle. This is the idea that you would catch a young songbird, usually a male because the coloring is brighter, and put two together and they might naturally respond to each other ... get territorial and start to sing. That can really make a lot of money. I heard from some in law enforcement and in the Cuban community that this was a really big market in Miami and naturally my interest was piqued.

Where do most of the trappings for songbirds take place?

All around Miami. Some of it occurs in people's backyards. Some of it occurs on national lands. Some of it occurs illegally when people trespass on other folks' land.

You're saying people are sneaking into other people's yards to trap birds?

Yeah, that's what I hear from law enforcement. You will put a relatively small trap that hangs from a tree and then you'll sort of stand nearby if you're a trapper and wait for a bird to come by. It's interesting. They're homemade, for the most part they're these wooden and metal devices where typically you'll put a bait bird inside, meaning you'll put another bird of the same species usually a male or a younger bird and it'll sing out. You're hoping to attract birds and then you'll put a bit of seed or glue on top of this trap door so that when a bird comes by, it'll fall into the trap and then of course it can't escape.

You dug through tons of these [songbird trapping] cases. What jumped out at you?

How recently the trade has gotten so sophisticated. Law enforcement told me they were really surprised about this. In one case a guy was wanting to attract birds. He had solar powered, Bluetooth speakers that were playing bird songs in the woods and he was integrating technology in that way to try to scale up his trade. It was surprising.

Another gentleman described in court documents how he would hang these illegal giant nets across a field. It's called a mist net. It's difficult to see, it's sort of like a spider web, and then he would get a truck and it would be loud and he'd drive the truck towards the net and the birds would come out frightened by the noise and they'd all get caught in the net. He'd catch dozens and dozens of these birds by using this method. And then sometimes he wouldn't remove them very quickly and feral dogs and cats would catch these birds sometimes and eat them. And so it's really just a large scale grotesque trade.

This story was updated on Oct. 3, 2019. 

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