Songbirds are being snatched from Miami’s forests

Law enforcement has discovered a thriving underground business of trapping songbirds around Miami—to become pets and to sing in competitions.

Photograph by Karine Aigner, National Geographic
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Thousands of migratory songbirds are caught around Florida each year to supply a thriving illegal market. People buy them for their beauty and to hear their songs—and perhaps in the hope they’ll win big in singing competitions.

Photograph by Karine Aigner, National Geographic

Even as three armed officers closed in on the small wooden cage, its occupant sang out. The call was that of a young male indigo bunting, high-pitched and simple. The bird was too young to have perfected more complex tunes, but he sang with gusto.

Lazaro Enamorado, 32, the bird’s owner, listened nearby, arms crossed, face grave. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered, looking away as the officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prepared to take his crooner and two other cherished songbirds back to their vehicle. Enamorado’s eyes were shiny with tears.

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Officer Rene Taboas and colleagues with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission pack up confiscated birds, traps, and cages for the night after an undercover sting at a house where a man kept illegal birds, including this painted bunting.

In the wild, indigo buntings and many other songbirds traverse huge distances during their spring and fall migrations, taking wing from breeding grounds in southern Canada to wintering areas in South America, often stopping to rest in Florida. Flying mainly at night, they navigate by the stars, and as they go, the young males learn some of their songs from older ones voyaging with them.

But this young bunting, its passage cut short by a trapper in Florida, had ended up with Enamorado in his Miami neighborhood. The bird’s tan and iridescent-blue face was scarred from where a trap’s wire bars had cut into him as he struggled to regain his freedom.

That shouldn’t have happened. Buntings and other migratory songbirds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a century-old United States law that makes it illegal to capture, kill, or possess any of these birds. Violators are subject to fines and possible imprisonment for up to six months, and if they sell or smuggle the birds, to possible felony charges that may result in more extensive jail time.

Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 40 protected bird species in Florida are routinely trapped, mostly songbirds but also owls and hawks. According to Rene Taboas—an undercover officer who heads the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s songbird investigations whom we had permission to name—almost all songbird trapping in the state occurs in national parks and on state lands and private property around Miami. According to Florida law enforcement officials who track the trade, it’s done largely by people either born in Cuba, where keeping songbirds is part of the culture, or born in the U.S. of Cuban descent.

“We’ve seen issues in other states too,” says David Pharo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s resident agent in charge of law enforcement for southeastern Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. But so far, he says, Florida remains a trapping hot spot because songbirds are plentiful and demand is high.

Motives vary. “We see everything from money as a driver, to religious purposes for sacrifice, to bird enthusiasts that want them for their personal collection, to people who want them for singing competitions,” Pharo says.

People in Florida trap and sell perhaps thousands of birds each year for their colorful plumage and distinctive songs, according to state authorities. Since April 2017, officers with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have issued hundreds of misdemeanor charges for songbird trapping or possession. The commission is also working on larger, longer-term cases: Earlier this year, for example, officers discovered 75 protected birds in cages on one man’s property. (To report suspected wildlife crime in Florida you can contact officials here.)

Many songbird crimes in Florida likely go unnoticed. Were it not for the sharp eyes of Taboas, Enamorado might never have been caught. Despite the tall white fence around Enamorado’s property on a quiet residential street in Miami Gardens, Taboas had spotted the caged songbirds while patrolling in his vehicle.

Enamorado’s small backyard collection included a second indigo bunting he claimed had gone blind with age and a rose-breasted grosbeak—a prized bird whose song sounds similar to a robin’s but arguably even sweeter and more melodious. He told the officers he’d acquired both buntings six months earlier in exchange for three cages. But to get the grosbeak—his “baby”—he had to trade away two indigo buntings and throw in an extra $150.

Enamorado, who arrived in Florida from his native Cuba in 2005, says that when he was growing up in Havana, songbirds were part of everyday life. Craftsmen made wire and wood traps to catch birds and ornate wooden cages for displaying them. Cuban bullfinches and painted buntings were—and still are—especially popular. People want them as pets and as contenders in singing competitions.

“In my 23 years traveling and working in Cuba, I’ve seen an alarming increase in captured wild birds on display,” says Gary Markowski, founder and executive director of the Connecticut-based Caribbean Conservation Trust, an NGO that promotes bird protection in Cuba and nearby countries. “Without any enforcement of the very ambiguous Cuban laws presumably designed to prevent this activity, there are virtually no consequences confronting poachers and traders within the domestic market.” And that robust trade, aided by cheaper flights between the countries, has ripple effects for people of Cuban background in the U.S., he says. (Recently, the Trump administration has made such travel more difficult.) The Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment did not respond to a request for comment on its bird protection policies and enforcement of them.

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In Florida’s Cuban community, owning a painted bunting or indigo bunting can be a status symbol. More than a hundred of the birds seized by Florida state officials during the past two years were male painted buntings, birds known for their distinctive songs and coloring—red chests, blue heads, green wings. The French word for the bird, nonpareil, means “without equal”; Cubans call them mariposa, Spanish for butterfly.

Fervor for painted buntings, along with loss of habitat in the U.S. and Mexico, likely contributed to a roughly 60 percent decline in their U.S. numbers between 1966 and 2003, according to periodic population counts of North American birds.

Enamorado’s interest in songbirds—and in trapping them—persisted after he came to the U.S. Then, three years ago, he and his wife decided it was time to stop. They’d just had their first child, and he’d seen too many headlines about people getting arrested or fined for trapping songbirds. But, he admits, he just couldn’t bring himself to make a clean break—even though he knew that trapping or possessing these birds is illegal. As long as he kept birds in his yard and didn’t trap any himself, he believed he was unlikely to get caught.

On April 11, 2019, about a month after Enamorado’s birds were seized, he stood before a judge at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, charged with three misdemeanors—one for each bird. As part of a plea agreement, he was ordered to pay $615.50 in court fees, make a donation of $250 to a local wildlife rehabilitation center, and complete a $150 Florida fish and wildlife educational course overseen by a nonprofit justice agency. Enamorado’s fingerprints were taken, and he now has a criminal record.

Songbirds for sale

There’s nothing novel about capturing and keeping wild birds as pets. History is replete with tales of bird collectors enamored with their songs. According to nature writer Jerry Dennis, the Sumerians—the oldest civilization known to keep written records, some 5,000 years ago—even had a word for birdcage: subura.

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Eglis Gonzalez, a novice trapper originally from Cuba, takes down one of his two songbird traps under the watchful eye of undercover investigator Rene Taboas. Gonzalez befriended Taboas at a pet store in Miami last winter and then spent weeks texting with him, trading tips about illegal bird trapping, before Taboas revealed his identity and issued misdemeanor citations for each bird in Gonzalez’s possession.

Today in Miami, as I discovered, it’s easy enough to acquire songbirds without having to set traps in the woods. In one pet shop I visited with Pharo, who was undercover in plainclothes, a Cuban bullfinch was on display. Cuban bullfinches aren’t native to the U.S., so this bird could only have been illegally imported or bred from an illegally imported parent.

I asked the employee working the front desk about yellow-faced grassquits, a bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. He made a quick phone call, in Spanish, and told me that, yes, he could get yellow-faced grassquits right away—$200 for an adult male or $150 for a young one. I demurred, saying I’d think about it, and we left.

In another store nearby, no protected birds were on display, but a patron directed me to a closed Facebook group called Palomeros de Miami where I could allegedly post about songbirds I was looking for or peruse other listings of illegal birds.

It was in a Miami-area pet store that Eglis Gonzalez’s trapping life took a bad turn when this past winter he approached Taboas asking if he could recommend the best birdseed to keep painted buntings healthy. Taboas, like Gonzalez, is Cuban American, and Gonzalez apparently assumed they were both members of the underground Cuban bird-trapping community.

The men got to talking about trapping songbirds in and around Miami. They exchanged phone numbers and in the weeks that followed texted often to talk about birds. Sometimes Taboas sent along photos of birds he and his colleagues had seized from other people who were trapping songbirds around Miami, claiming he’d caught them himself.

“It was almost too easy,” Taboas remembers. “Do I feel sorry for this guy? Do I feel guilty? No.”

Many songbird busts hinge on wildlife officers catching trappers in the act. On weekend mornings, when trappers are most active, Taboas generally can be found scouting the woods and wetlands around Miami. Gonzalez made his job a bit easier early one morning when he texted Taboas to say he’d be going out to check his traps in a poaching hot spot in the eastern Everglades.

Taboas decided to meet him there and invited photographer Karine Aigner and me to join him. As the three of us pulled up behind Gonzalez’s white Dodge pickup just after 8:30 a.m., Taboas wondered aloud if the dark-haired man ahead of us wearing a green shirt and blue shorts would recognize him. He did: Gonzalez greeted Taboas warmly in Cuban Spanish.

But when Taboas stepped out of the vehicle, his officer’s badge visible around his neck, Gonzalez’s eyes grew wide. He soon admitted that he’d placed two traps in the woods and agreed to take us to them.

Instead of placing the traps near the road in a sunlit patch of shrubbery—preferred songbird habitat, Taboas says—Gonzalez had hidden them deep in the woods. We followed Gonzalez over muddy terrain peppered with ankle-turning holes that were hard to see in the shoulder-high grass. “Watch out for snakes,” Taboas cautioned. “No really, I’m serious.”

After clambering across several small streams using narrow logs as mini-bridges, we came upon the first trap. Gonzalez reached up to a low-hanging tree branch and unhooked the wire holding the wooden contraption.

The cage contained a small, pale green bird—either a female painted bunting or a young male whose adult coloring had yet to show. The bird, Gonzalez admitted, was bait to lure another songbird to land on its pitfall door, which would drop the visitor into the trap and spring shut, preventing its escape.

Saying he had another cage not too far from there, Gonzalez took us to it—thankfully this one was easier to reach. He also told Taboas that he had five songbirds at his house. Another officer then accompanied Gonzalez there to seize the birds; since they were all protected species, Taboas cited Gonzalez with a misdemeanor for each and told him that he’d soon hear via mail about an upcoming court date.

Months later when I checked with Jay Marvin, Taboas’s boss, he told me that state prosecutors had decided not to proceed with the case against Gonzalez. “This happens frequently,” Marvin said. “In metropolitan areas where there’s a heavy load, sometimes they choose not to prosecute on some misdemeanors—not just with songbird cases.” I contacted the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office for further details but received no response.

One simple regulatory change now working through the state’s rulemaking system, Marvin explained, likely would make cases easier to close and help deter songbird trafficking. The change would make it illegal even to possess a bird trap, which can be bought in area pet stores for about $40. Owning one isn’t actionable now unless a bird of a protected species is found in it. So the burden is on law enforcement to catch a trapper in the act, and that’s very hard to do, Marvin said. A trap ban would be “the biggest thing that will help us.”

Operation Ornery Birds

When it comes to criminal activity involving songbirds in Florida, Gonzalez and Enamorado are mom and pop hobbyists, capturing or keeping birds for their own use or to trade with friends or local associates. For them, collecting birds was a favorite pastime. Since April 2017, when Marvin decided to ramp up his office’s focus on these everyday crimes, investigations by Florida wildlife officers have resulted in hundreds of songbird misdemeanor charges.

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an entire shed full of confiscated bird cages and traps, underscoring the scale of the illegal trapping business around Miami.

Federal officials, by contrast, concentrate on serial, large-scale songbird offenders, such as the six men charged in southern Florida in April 2018 as part of an investigation called Operation Ornery Birds. This is a multiyear, ongoing probe conducted by various agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The six defendants were collectively charged in federal court with catching, selling, smuggling, or bartering more than 400 migratory birds. Ornery Birds is the highest profile example to date of songbird trapping enforcement in the U.S. Seized birds included painted buntings, blue grosbeaks, and yellow-faced grassquits.

In one Ornery Birds case, defendant Reynaldo Mederos pleaded guilty to selling and offering to sell migratory birds after he told an undercover agent that he captured 50 to 60 painted buntings a year and also sold some protected birds to undercover agents. He was given two years of probation. Court documents detail two more cases involving smuggling of migratory birds from Cuba. (Federal authorities worry about smuggled birds because unchecked animals could transmit diseases to domestic poultry and wild birds.)

Alberto Iran Corbo Martinez, a defendant in one case, tried to conceal songbirds in hair curlers taped to his legs beneath baggy pants. In July 2018, in the federal court in South Florida, Martinez was sentenced to three months in prison and a year of supervised release for smuggling goods into the U.S. Also that month, defendant Hovary Muniz—who was nabbed for bringing songbirds from Cuba in a fanny pack and then, while on probation for the smuggling, continued selling protected migratory birds—was sentenced to a total of 15 months in prison.

When wildlife officers confiscate birds, they must figure out what to do with them. Ideally, they release them in a woodland where they hope the birds won’t be recaptured. But the wing muscles of birds kept in cages for months or years atrophy, and birds must be rehabilitated before they can be returned to nature. They also may have injuries or infections that could compromise their survival in the wild. Enamorado’s blind indigo bunting, for example, couldn’t survive on its own, so it will live out its days cared for in captivity.

Law enforcement rehabilitated and eventually released hundreds of specimens from Operation Ornery Birds. According to court documents, other birds died or were killed before the six men were caught. One defendant, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, left captured birds entangled in netting, which fell victim to feral dogs and cats. To capture his quarry, he would set up netting across a field and use a truck to frighten the birds toward it. (Read more about his case here and his stated motivation here.)

Operation Ornery Birds underscores that trappers are growing more sophisticated, learning from each other and making use of technology. Defendant Miguel Loureiro had traps near his house that used solar-powered electronic birdcall broadcasting systems. He was sentenced to nine months in prison for conspiracy to take migratory birds with intent to sell or barter. (For details on the more than 300 birds he admitted to trapping, see this document from the court case.)

“Until three years ago,” Pharo says, “no trap was associated with an audio device. It’s sad to see things spiral out of control.”

Singing for dollars

Songbird competitions are a global phenomenon, taking place everywhere from Indonesia to Spain. In the U.S., where keeping migratory songbirds is illegal, people generally don’t admit to participating in competitions, and I couldn’t get access to one.

Taboas assured me that they’re held in the Miami area, although he said he’d never been to one either. He’s heard that top-level competitions are exclusive invitation-only events, typically open only to men, with purses of thousands of dollars. “I’ve had many guys tell me they’ve been a part of it or have seen it. I have an informant now who is telling me about this and saying it’s going on.”

Ornithologist Eduardo Iñigo-Elias, a visiting scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has worked closely with the Cuban and Mexican governments on songbird protection, has been to competitions in Cuba and says Cuban colleagues tell him that similar ones are held in South Florida.

Training wild-caught songbirds to compete initially involves keeping young males isolated in near-darkness, Iñigo-Elias says. This makes them more docile and receptive to learning songs. (Females have shorter call notes and are less trainable, he says.) Meanwhile, the recorded songs of other birds are played repeatedly on a loop, with the goal of teaching the birds to mimic long, elaborate—and, their owners hope, award-winning—songs. Sometimes different species are kept together so they’ll learn to sing showstopping, hybrid songs.

During competitions, the caged male birds are arranged by species, which triggers their territorial instinct, prompting them to sing. The bird that belts out the longest, most complex song wins.

According to Iñigo-Elias, the top prize for songsters in elite competitions in Cuba could bring $5,000—and twice that, he suggests, in Florida.

Discarded birds

Many songbirds never make it to a competition, Iñigo-Elias says. They may die of heart failure from the stress of living in the confines of captivity, from injuries sustained while attempting to escape, or from trying to bang up against cages holding other males. He says he’s seen numerous dead songbirds in Mexico and Cuba, discarded on an almost “daily basis during the peak of the spring migration, when most of the trapping takes place.” The birds are simply cast aside when they die, he says.

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On Sunday mornings, Cuban men often gather at A.D. Barnes Park in Miami to socialize and show off their birds, some of which aren’t legal to own. This migratory songbird, a yellow-faced grassquit, is a protected species.

Rene Taboas says that at the homes of trappers in Florida, dead birds often are found in backyards decomposing near the cages of live birds. (I saw two such dead birds during the five busts Taboas invited me to observe.)

Songbirds aren’t the only casualties of the collecting craze. Operation Ornery Birds court documents reveal the extreme measures songbird trader Miguel Loureiro took to protect his assets. Loureiro filmed himself killing a visiting loggerhead shrike, a protected migratory species known to attack songbirds, claiming it was threatening his birds. According to his court documents, he posted the footage and still photos to the Facebook group Palomeros de Miami to advertise his stock. (That’s the same group the patron in one pet shop had mentioned to me.) Loureiro repeatedly threw the shrike against a wooden fence, according to the court documents, which also note that he nailed a different loggerhead shrike to a wooden cross with a sign that read Por Comer Pajaros—For Eating Birds.

Shocked by those atrocities, Taboas says he was no less horrified by what came to light soon after we left Lazaro Enamorado’s house. Taboas had stopped to free some of the birds seized that day, and when he took a closer look at Enamorado’s blind indigo bunting, he saw that its eyes appeared to have been gouged out and that a safety pin with red and black beads on it was fastened to the edge of the cage, which could have been used to blind a bird. (Enamorado had told Taboas that the bird had come to him blind. He was not charged with disfiguring the bird.)

Such disfigurement, Taboas says, occurs in the name of Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion with Roman Catholic elements that generally involves animal sacrifices. A Santería practitioner later told him that bird blinding is a fringe practice, not representative of the religion. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that it’s constitutional for Santería worshippers to kill animals for ritual sacrifices.)

When I mentioned the incident to Iñigo-Elias, he was shocked. He said he’d heard of bird sacrifices and ceremonies in which roosters and hummingbirds were killed but never one involving an indigo bunting or the blinding of a bird.

Singing in the woods

“Birds are not meant to be in a cage.”

That’s what Michelle Davis said when we met before dawn at a Cracker Barrel parking lot about an hour south of Miami. Davis is the director of the Cape Florida Banding Station, whose volunteers are trained to catch birds and fasten a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum band around their ankles. The bands, which carry unique identification numbers, help volunteers monitor the birds’ health and migration habits.

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It sometimes takes weeks of rehabilitation to strengthen the wings of confiscated songbirds so they can fly again. Here, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lt. Antonio Dominguez releases rose-breasted grosbeaks back into the wild.

Davis had agreed to take me to a small state park near Everglades National Park that’s popular for bird-watching. For the occasion, she had high-caliber binoculars connected to a body harness. But it soon became obvious that she can easily identify a bird just from a snippet of song or a snatch of color—no need for enhanced vision.

Within a couple of hours, she’d pointed out dozens of painted buntings, indigo buntings, ground doves, cardinals (and one gator, from a safe distance). We met up with a few other early birders who, in the manner of passionate hobbyists, quickly took to comparing sightings and trading intel on birds that could be seen in nearby trees.

As we returned to her car, Davis talked about the illegal trapping in the Miami area, shaking her head in frustration. Other problems loom larger, she acknowledged. Illegal trapping “probably can’t hold a candle to other threats like land use change and climate change, but it can make a dent in the local population,” she said with a sigh.

Davis stopped and gestured toward two indigo buntings that had landed on a telephone wire nearby. The birds, perhaps vying for territory, were singing, one staccato call blending into another. Their melodies carried through the woods, and we stood in silence, content for a few moments just to watch and listen.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to
Karine Aigner is a National Geographic contributing photographer. You can follow her on Instagram.