This week, a federal grand jury returned indictments charging six Cuban nationals who resided in Houston with illegal trafficking of migratory songbirds. The six separate indictments allege violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act.
The scheme allegedly involved the illegal trapping and selling of protected songbirds, including indigo buntings, painted buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, blue grosbeaks and house finches, among others.
The birds are often used in singing competitions in which the participating owners gamble thousands of dollars on the winning bird, a common practice in Cuba and elsewhere. The birds migrate from Canada, through Texas, to South America. They are trapped as they pass through the Houston area, commonly using a live “bait bird” whose singing attracts other birds to the trap.
The joint investigation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement Special Agents and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas Game Wardens led to the seizure of over 300 illegally trapped songbirds.
“The illegal wildlife trade doesn’t just happen behind closed doors – many of our native species are being traded out in the open in flea markets and online marketplaces like Facebook,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent in Charge Victoria Owens. “In addition to seeking justice for our native wildlife and the American public, we want the prosecution of these cases to help educate the public about wildlife laws and deter people from committing these crimes in the future. We will pursue and hold accountable anyone who violates fish and wildlife laws for commercial gain.”
"Texas Game Wardens have a long, proud history of working alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement to protect wildlife species found throughout the state, and this case is just the latest success from this partnership," said Colonel Chad Jones, Director of Law Enforcement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Without the help of Operation Game Thief, and the reporting of this initial crime by the public, the positive outcome for this operation would not have been possible. We encourage Texans to report suspicious activity whenever it's encountered, and we hope the successful conclusion to this case helps to educate the public and deter future commercial gain from the illegal wildlife trade in Texas."
The seized songbirds were turned over to the Houston Zoo and Moody Gardens where they were evaluated and photographed. Healthy birds were released to the wild, while those that were too sick or injured to survive unaided will remain under the care of the zoos.
The illegal trapping has a significant impact on the wild songbird populations. The birds are poorly suited to captivity and typically die soon after being confined to a cage.
“We are pleased to see a positive outcome in this case as the plight of native birds is just now becoming clear. It is our core role as an Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited organization to preserve natural resources and protect threatened and endangered wildlife,” said General Curator Greg Whittaker of Moody Gardens.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted in 1918 for the protection of migratory birds. The Lacey Act prohibits trafficking in wildlife that was taken in violation of federal, state, tribal or foreign law.
If convicted, they each face a maximum penalty of five years in prison for violating the Lacey Act, two years for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and possible fines of up to $250,000.
For more information, visit the United States Attorney’s Office Southern District of Texas website here: https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdtx/pr/six-indicted-trafficking-songbirds.