The Fight to Stop Songbird Poaching

The Fight to Stop Songbird Poaching

Each year, millions of birds migrate long distances during the spring and fall. Many start their journeys in southern Canada and end up in South America, traversing across the United States. To protect them, Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in 1918. The MBTA is one of the oldest wildlife protection laws in the US. Evolving from a treaty with Canada, it has broadened to include treaties with Mexico, Japan, and Russia. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior.”

The state of Florida, which is often a rest stop for migrating birds, is believed to be home to widespread illegal trapping of song birds and other species including owls and hawks. According to USFWS, routine trapping of 40 species of protected birds (like the indigo bunting) occurs in Florida. And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reports that almost all songbirds are trapped in and around Miami in national parks, on state lands, or on private property. The motivations for poaching are plentiful: money, social status, religious purposes, personal collections, and singing competitions. Songbird competitions are held around the globe, even though they are illegal in places including the US. These contests are exclusive events, generally open only to men and only by invitation. Winners can earn from $5000 (in Cuba) up to $10,000 in Florida. To train a wild-caught songbird to sing at a competitive level, young males are caged individually and kept in near-darkness, making them more tame and eager to learn new songs. Then they are exposed to a loop of recorded songs of other birds. Owners may combine different species together in the recordings with the hopes that their birds will learn long, complicated, championship-level songs.

Those found to be in possession of a protected bird can face fines and up to six months in jail. And if violators are caught smuggling or selling the birds, they can face felony charges and extended imprisonment. According to National Geographic, in April of 2018, “six defendants were collectively charged in federal court with catching, selling, smuggling, or bartering more than 400 migratory birds” as part of an investigation by agencies including USFWS and FWC called Operation Ornery Birds. One defendant said he captured 50 to 60 birds each year; he was given two years’ probation. Other defendants in the case have been sentenced with up to 15 months in jail. Birds confiscated during Operation Ornery Birds, had to be rehabilitated (after spending so much time in cages, their wing muscles had experienced atrophy) before being released into the wild at Everglades National Park.

The fight against illegal trapping of birds in Florida has been a challenge. In order to arrest poachers, law enforcement officials literally had to catch violators with the birds in their hands or in their traps. But that has now changed, thanks to the efforts of the FWC. On July 17, 2019, the FWC Commissioners approved new language making it illegal to possess a bird trap without a permit. And allowing law enforcement officers to immediately confiscate and then destroy the traps. “These traps are the tools of an illicit black market,” said Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell. “Florida is a leader among states, taking steps to prohibit their possession.” The new rule will be published and enacted later this summer, just in time for fall migration.

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