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Four released birds spread their wings and take flight towards the blue sky.
Information icon Migratory birds take to the skies after being uncaged at Everglades National Park. The birds had been seized as part of Operation Ornery Birds. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Taking flight to freedom

Federal and state law enforcement officials release birds seized in Operation Ornery Birds into the Everglades

Everglades National Park, Florida — Once they were locked up and abused. Now they are free.

About 130 birds were released April 14 into Florida’s River of Grass by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and partners at Everglades National Park headquarters near Homestead, Florida. The birds had been bought by undercover agents from illegal trappers and traffickers, and seized in a series of arrests in the days leading up to the release.

Flying off into the morning were indigo buntings, painted buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, northern cardinals, house finches, and clay-colored sparrows.

Dozens of colorful birds in a large cage.
Before they were released into the wild, birds were cared for by wildlife experts at the Service’s Law Enforcement Office in Miami, Florida. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

The long-running undercover operation was dubbed Operation Ornery Birds, a spin on the video game Angry Birds. It was a joint operation of the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, with support from the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Division, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.

“Today is a particularly joyous moment for all of us in the conservation community,” said Justin Unger, Deputy Superintendent of the park. “I am thrilled that our more than 1.5 million visitors to Everglades National Park can once again see these birds fly free in their native habitat.”

Representatives from several federal agencies hold a press conference in front of the everglades.
Operation Ornery Birds involved multiple partners coordinating on many fronts, and they were represented at a release event Saturday in the Everglades. Included: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Postal Inspectors Service, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and the National Park Service. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“The bottom line is these activities boil down to money,” said David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, Miami. “They’re making money from illegally trapping and trafficking these federally protected migratory songbirds. These people are having real impacts on the resources.”

Prior to the release, six people were charged with multiple violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the 1918 landmark act that protects migratory birds by prohibiting hunting, possessing, killing, buying, selling, importing or exporting them.

Saturday morning’s setting was the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Everglades National Park, the 1.5 million acre subtropical wilderness that is also a World Heritage Site and home to Florida panthers, manatees, and hundreds of species of birds.

“We want to use this release to inform the public that possessing a migratory songbird of any type is illegal,” Capt. Albert Maza of the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission told the media and audience at the release. “Many people may not realize that owning a migratory songbird such as an indigo bunting or a painted bunting is illegal.”

It started with a Youtube video

The roots of Ornery Birds go back six years to 2012, when Fish and Wildlife agents in Miami found Youtube videos of birds listed under the MBTA. An undercover agent contacted the poster, who said his supplier was providing him with a steady stream of indigo buntings and painted buntings for sale.

That first contact led to more traffickers and trappers, as the agents uncovered a web of sellers and buyers. Eventually agents identified hundreds of birds and dozens of species, all of them protected under the MBTA, and some under the Endangered Species Act.

More than 400 birds were seized during the long-running operation, and many of those were logged as evidence, then released into an appropriate habitat before the Everglades event.

Dozens of traps seized during the operation are stcked on metal shelves.
The operation seized hundreds of bird traps, which filled 10 large shelves, stacked floor to ceiling, in the evidence room of the Law Enforcement Office. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“One of the obstacles we face is that many of these bird traps are legal to possess, make or sell,” Pharo explained. “But when they are used to target federally protected species such as migratory birds, they are being used illegally.”

The evidence room at the Service’s Miami law enforcement headquarters was filled with shelves packed floor to ceiling with traps seized in arrests: wooden traps, metal traps, traps with a variety of tricky door mechanisms and multiple chambers.

“The trappers sometimes use bait birds in the traps, and the bait bird will sing and flutter around and attract other birds,” Pharo said. “Other traps use electronic calls that mimic the sounds of the birds they are trapping.

“Sometimes they use mist nets, which are constructed of very thin thread-like material that becomes nearly invisible. Then they use trucks to force the birds to flee and get tangled in the mist nets.

“They also use something called a lime stick,” he continued, “which is sticky material, similar to what you find in sticky rat traps. They put that on a branch and the bird lands and becomes entangled.”

The thin green line

A man in a dark suit speaking from behind a podium next to an American flag.
David Pharo, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, Miami, addresses the media at Everglades National Park as part of Operation Ornery Birds. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Some of the defendants allegedly trafficked and smuggled birds, including one who allegedly tried to smuggle birds concealed in hair curlers taped to his body underneath baggy pants.

“Over the years we’ve seen an increase in the trafficking of federally protected birds,” said Pharo. “They use containers with false compartments and other methods to ship birds for the underground black market trade.”

The brutal business sometimes resulted in killed and injured birds. One of the trappers allegedly left birds entangled in mist nets where wild dogs and cats preyed upon them before he could remove them from the netting. Another allegedly maimed birds by ripping out their tail feathers.

Ariel Gaffney, a forensic ornithologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, spent the week leading up to the release in Miami identifying the species of seized birds that were brought in by the investigators in the case.

A female employee smiling while holding a tiny blue bird in her hand.
Ariel Gaffney, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic ornithologist, holds a blue grosbeak that was allegedly illegally trapped in Florida and seized in Operation Ornery Birds. Gaffney’s job was to identify each bird’s species to determine if it was covered under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

“Identifying species is really important in this case,” she explained, “because most bird species in North America are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but some species, such as invasive species, are not.

“Illegal trapping is a widespread problem, and cutting down on it is important because it can ease some of the pressures these birds are experiencing,” she continued. “They are experiencing habitat loss on their wintering and breeding grounds, and at their stopover sites, such as here in Florida, they are being illegally trapped.”

At the event, Deputy Superintendent Unger thanked all of the federal and state law enforcement officials who participated in Operation Ornery Birds, and who do similar work to protect our public resources year-round.

“It takes dedication,” he said, “from the men and women working along the thin green line to ensure that our ecosystem remains healthy and intact.”

A man in a dark suit pulls out one side of a bird cage allowing birds to escape.
Migratory birds, such as painted bunting and house finches, which are native to south Florida, flew from their temporary cages into the Everglades. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.


Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 644-7193

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