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Finch Owners Say Birds Can Be A Big Source Of Money In Singing Races, Leading To Illegal Smuggling

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- A bird-smuggling suspect was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday when live finches were found stuffed into hair curlers.

CBS2's Hazel Sanchez spoke with New York City finch owners about why the birds are worth a lot of money.

They may be pint-sized, but the chestnut-bellied seed finches can be a big source of pride and money if they can sing.

"It's all about bragging rights. One person will say, hey, my bird is singing and it's the best," Jamaica, Queens, resident David Leila said.

Leila owns three Guyanese-born finches.

Sahid Mohamed owns four, all purchased in New York. One of them was quite the vocal powerhouse. Mohamed entered him in singing "races," where finches go head-to-head to see who can whistle 50 times first.

"I was in the competition a few years ago," Mohamed said.

"And what was it like?" Sanchez asked.

"I got third prize. I got a trophy at home," Mohamed said.

The races, popular at parks like Phil Scooter Rizutto Park in Queens, can also net winners hundreds of dollars and prestige.

Some champion finches native to the Caribbean can be valued up to $10,000. The greed has led to illegal smuggling.

A man flying in from Guyana was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport on April 26, 2021, after being caught smuggling nearly three dozen finches. (Credit: U.S. District Court Eastern District of NY)

On Monday, U.S. Customs officers at JFK Airport busted a man for smuggling 35 live finches stuffed in hair curlers in his suit jacket and under his pants. He said he was offered $3,000 for his work.

"I'm totally against it. Some of them don't even come through because they die of suffocation," Leila said.

Legally importing the birds, after all the fees, costs upwards of $400 a bird, leading to attempts to skirt the law.

It's a heartbreaking reality for bird owners like Leila and Mohamed, who come to the park with their feathered friends from their homeland.

"We grew up catching birds," Leila said.

"I love to hear them sing in the morning," Mohamed said.

"I had to have something here in the United States to make me think that I'm home. I miss home a lot," Leila said.

Animal rights advocates would like authorities to find an alternative way to handle the illegally imported birds rather than euthanization.

They say the threat of arrest or deportation is not enough to stop people from smuggling them in.

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