By Andrea Romano
December 13, 2018
Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Dozens of tiny songbirds have been flocking to the U.S., but not in the way you think.

At New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport last weekend, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stopped a man traveling from Georgetown, Guyana and conducted a search of his luggage, ABC News reported.

What they found was a bit unexpected. Inside the man’s black duffle bag were 70 live finches delicately placed inside hair rollers.

Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The passenger was subsequently arrested for attempting to smuggle the birds. The birds themselves were taken to the United States Department of Agriculture Veterinary Services, under quarantine, according to ABC News.

“CBP Agriculture Specialists are the first line of defense to prevent the introduction of animal diseases that have the potential to cause significant damage to the nation's agricultural economy," Troy Miller, director of field operations, New York Field Office, told ABC News.

Birds flown into the U.S. may be carriers of several diseases that can threaten agriculture in the U.S., including Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (also known as Avian Flu or Bird Flu).

But according to The New York Times, this isn’t the first incident of finches being smuggled into the country using some unorthodox packing methods. In addition to hair rollers, cardboard toilet paper rolls are also used to transport the birds. Customs officials have said that about 200 of the tiny birds have been intercepted coming from South America, namely Guyana, according to The New York Times.

Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

What possessed these smugglers to bring in so many birds? Singing contests.

The New York Times reported that the birds are entered into “underground singing contests,” in which gamblers place bets on the most musical bird. Finches are particularly popular due to the amount of chirps they make per minute.

A sought-out male finch with a history of wins could sell for up to $10,000 said one investigation, aptly nicknamed “Operation G-Bird,” conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, The New York Times reported.

Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

“The most common animal we see trying to be smuggled through the passenger environment are these birds, the finches,” said Anthony Bucci, a spokesman for United States Customs and Border Protection to The New York Times. “It goes in cycles, like everything else. It’s not an everyday occurrence or an every month occurrence, but it does happen,” Bucci added.

Usually, the smugglers are sent back to Guyana, but some are still admitted to the U.S. and fined. Apparently, bird smuggling can be a big business.