Picture of a wooden cage, housing a bullfinch, hanging from the curled trunk of a tree as a bright blue classic sedan drives past.

How Cuba’s popular songbird competitions are putting wild birds at risk

Online sales of wild birds, conducted openly in violation of Cuban laws, are booming.

Trapping wild songbirds is illegal in Cuba but has a long tradition. Favored species such as this Cuban bullfinch the city of Cienfuegos often are displayed on streets and in homes. In singing contests, prized male birds may be placed near each other, spurring them to sing.

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The men began arriving with their champion crooners early on a Sunday morning. Sidestepping the tall weeds and trash mounds that blocked the narrow path, they gathered at a secluded spot in Havana. It was September—bird migration season in Cuba—and the recent influx of coveted songbirds had set off a flurry of illegal trapping and selling. Painted buntings, indigo buntings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks, a collective riot of color and song, were in high demand. Sundays were popular for songbird competitions.

Days earlier, someone posted the venue on one of the dozen Cuban songbird Facebook groups I’d joined in July 2021. Because of coronavirus restrictions, I couldn’t travel to Cuba, and a local contact agreed to attend the clandestine meetup for me on condition of anonymity.

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