Smuggler Caught With 35 Singing Birds At JFK Airport

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A man was busted attempting to smuggle 35 live finches through New York’s John F Kennedy Airport on Monday, April 26. In demand for bird singing contests, the tiny birds were secreted inside hair curlers hidden inside the smuggler’s jacket and strapped to his legs. But federal agents were on the case, and they nabbed the smuggler after landing.

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A man coming off a JetBlue flight was arrested for wildlife smuggling at JFK on Monday. Photo: JetBlue

Smuggled birds destined for songbird circuit

Agents from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had been investigating a bird smuggling racket from Guyana to the United States. Finches make popular songbirds. Competitions are held in parks around New York, and people can bet on which bird will win.

There’s a belief in songbird circles that native US finch species are inferior songbirds compared to some imported finch species. Birds that do well on the circuit are worth as much as $10,000.

In addition to being a non-native bird species, the illegal importation of birds can introduce exotic and potentially dangerous diseases into a country. It is also a very cruel practice. A photo released by the US Attorney’s Office shows how the birds are transported.

A citizen of Guyana, Kevin Andre McKenzie, 36, was searched by Border Patrol agents at JFK on Monday and found carrying the birds. Mr McKenzie flew in on JetBlue J61966 from Georgetown. J61966 is JetBlue’s Airbus A321 overnight service from Guyana. Flight tracking site RadarBox.com has this flight touching down at JFK just before 06:00 (local time) on Monday morning.

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Finches secreted in hair curlers in Mr McKenzie’s jacket. Photo: US Attorney’s Office Eastern New York District

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Lots of busts at JFK involving birds from Guyana

Monday’s seizure was one of several involving birds from Guyana destined for songbird competitions. In 2018, federal agents caught two men at JFK attempting to smuggle 26 finches in hair curlers from Guyana. In 2019, a 39-year-old Connecticut man was busted at JFK with 34 finches secured in hair curlers and hidden in his carry-on.

Depending on the charges laid, smugglers can face up to 20 years of prison time. However, when a man smuggling 29 finches from Guyana was arrested at JFK last month, he was fined just $300 and sent home.

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The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Paul Calle called bird smuggling a “terrible thing.”

“With a multibillion-dollar U.S. poultry industry, there’s a lot at stake and a lot at risk if they’re moving animals like this.”

Mr McKenzie was booked and held overnight before been released on a $25,000 bond on Tuesday morning. For his efforts, the smuggler was due to be paid $3,000. Mr McKenzie had received $500 upfront with the remainder due on delivery of the birds.

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Small birds like finches are easily hidden in hair curlers. Photo: US Attorney’s Office Eastern New York District

JetBlue works to combat illegal wildlife trafficking

Simple Flying has contacted JetBlue for a comment regarding the matter. The airline has not responded before publication. But JetBlue has a history of working to combat illegal animal trafficking.

In 2016, the airline joined forces with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to stamp out the illicit trade. JetBlue is also a member of the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, a coalition of organizations, companies, foundations and media interests fighting wildlife smuggling.

“Like many travelers, I was not initially aware of the extent wildlife trafficking has threatened many species,” said JetBlue’s Sophia Mendelsohn at the time.

Many animal species are victims of the illegal smuggling trade, but birds are among the most popular. The United States State Department estimates that two million to five million wild birds are illegally trafficked every year worldwide. The State Department says illegal wildlife trafficking is one of the top five transnational organized crimes.

Could airlines like JetBlue do more to illegal combat animal trafficking? Post a comment and let us know.

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