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The sound of chirping led airport officials to a bag full of smuggled parrot eggs.

The 24 bright green baby parrots began chirping and bobbing their heads the second anyone approached the large cage that had been their home since hatching in March.

The Central American native, seized from a smuggler at Miami International Airport, is being raised by the Rare Species Conservancy Foundation — a round-the-clock effort that includes feeding five hands a day in a room full of large cages.

At just 9 weeks old, these parrots have already survived a harrowing journey after being plucked from their nest in a forest. They are now almost fully feathered and workers are beginning to convert them from a special formula to a food tree and fruit diet.

parrot trafficking

Young yellow-napped Amazon parrots are carried in a plastic tub at the Rare Species Conservancy Foundation in Loksahatchee, Fla., Friday, May 19, 2023.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

“Are you ready to meet the kids?” asked Paul Railo, a professor at Florida International University and director of the foundation, as he led visitors Friday into a small building behind a sprawling home in Loxahatchee, a rural community near West Palm Beach.

“They’re hand-raised babies,” he says, the chicks squirming and looking inquisitively at the audience. “They’ve never seen mommy and daddy; they’ve been raised by us since they were babies.”

It was the children’s indistinct chirping inside a carry-on bag at the Miami airport that brought them to the attention of US Customs and Border Protection officers. The passenger, Szu Ta Wu, had just arrived on TACA Airlines Flight 392 from Managua, Nicaragua on March 23 and was changing flights in Miami to return to Taiwan, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Miami.

Officers stop Wu at a checkpoint. He was asked about the noise coming from his bag, which Railo later described as a “sophisticated” temperature-controlled cooler.

Woo reached inside and pulled out a small bag and showed the officer an egg, the complaint said. The officer then looked inside to see more eggs and a small featherless bird that had just hatched.

He told the officer that there were 29 eggs and that he did not have documentation to transport the birds, according to the complaint.

Wu was arrested, and on May 5 pleaded guilty to bird trafficking charges in the United States. He faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on Aug. 1.

A lawyer who could speak for him was not listed in court documents, but Wu told investigators through a Mandarin interpreter that a friend paid him to travel from Taiwan to Nicaragua to collect eggs. He denied what kind of bird they were.

The officer contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service with the bag. By then, eight birds had already hatched or were in the process of hatching.

It didn’t take long for federal officials to catch up with Railo.

“They didn’t know what these things were and wanted my advice on it,” Railo said. Baby parrots are featherless, so identifying them is difficult.

He helped set up a temporary incubator at the US Department of Agriculture’s aviary at the airport to save the now-hatching parrots.

The next day, Dr. Stacy McFarlane, a USDA veterinarian who initially cared for the birds and eggs at the airport, and other officials distributed the baby parrots and leftover eggs to Railo’s conservatory.

“At that point we were on the run,” he said. “We’ve got all these eggs, the chicks are hatching, the incubators are running and when all is said and done, we’ve hatched 26 of the 29 eggs and 24 of the 26 survived.”

Spend a few seconds with Brazil’s most critically endangered Amazon this Endangered Species Day. This chick is 39 days old!

Posted by Rare Species Archives Foundation on Friday, May 19th, 2023

USDA regulations required the birds to be quarantined for 45 days, which meant that Railo and his team had to scrub when they entered and left the house.

But they still weren’t sure which 360 species of parrot they were working with.

A forensic team at Florida International extracted DNA samples from eggshells and dead birds to identify the species. They discovered that the 24 surviving parrots were from eight or nine clutches and included two species – the yellow-naped amazon and the red-naped amazon.

Both birds are popular in the breeding and cage-bird industries because they are beautiful and have good temperaments, Reillo said.

The smuggling pipeline from Central America is well established and has been going on for years, he said.

“In fact, the biggest threat to parrots worldwide is a combination of habitat loss and trafficking,” Reillo said, adding that about 90% of eggs are poached for the illegal parrot trade.

BirdLife International lists the yellow-naped Amazon as “critically endangered” with a population of between 1,000 and 2,500 in the wild. Amazons in red are also listed as having a growing population.

“Most of these trafficking cases end in tragedy,” Railo said. “The fact that the chicks were hatching on the first day of his trip from Managua to Miami tells you that none of them could have survived, it was highly unlikely that he would have reached his destination in Taiwan. 36 hours of travel.”

Railo now faces the challenge of finding a permanent home for the birds, which can live 60 to 70 years or more. He said he is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a plan “to help birds fly free and restore their species in the wild.”

“Parrots live a long time. They’re sensitive animals. They’re very intelligent, very social, and these guys deserve a chance,” he said. “The question will be where do they go? What is their journey going to be? It’s just the beginning.”

According to WWF, although many parrots are legal and are bred as pets, “there is also a dark side to the parrot trade.”

“Some birds are taken from their wild homes and trafficked to market centers to be sold to unsuspecting customers,” says WWF, adding that “birds often die during trafficking.”

In Guatemala, smuggling exotic animals is big business, and small animals are often smuggled onto public transport, BBC News reported. While searching a bus in 2021, police found a bag containing several baby parrots, which were taken to an animal hospital for rehabilitation.

In other parts of the world travelers have been caught trying to smuggle parrots and other exotic birds.

In 2020, dozens of smuggled parrots stuffed in plastic bottles were found on a ship docked in Indonesia.

In 2018, US Customs and Border Protection officers and agricultural experts at JFK Airport inspected a traveler’s carry-on bag and 20 living finches have been discovered housed in a tube-shaped enclosure.

In 2015, police in Indonesia said one man had strangled nearly two dozen Endangered yellow-crested cockatoos Putting them in plastic bottles in an attempt to sneak them through customs.

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