Once they were locked up and abused. Now they're free.
About 130 birds were released in April 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.
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 USFWS 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.
You can learn more about the operation in the video below.
"Today is a particularly joyous moment for all of us in the conservation community," said park Deputy Superintendent Justin Unger. "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."
"The bottom line is these activities boil down to money," said USFWS Resident Agent in Charge David Pharo. "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.
The setting for the release was the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Everglades National Park. The 1.5 million-acre subtropical wilderness 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," Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission Capt. Albert Maza told the media and audience who had gathered. "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
Several hundred birds were rescued in the operation and released into an appropriate habitat. (Photo: Phil Kloer, USFWS/Shutterstock)
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.
"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 USFWS’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, which is sticky material, similar to what you find in sticky rat traps," said Pharo. "They put that on a branch and the bird lands and becomes entangled."
The thin green line
Many of the birds released are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (Photo: Phil Kloer, USFWS/Flickr)
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 USFWS 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.
"Identifying species is really important in this case because most bird species in North America are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but some species, such as invasive species, are not," Gaffney explained.
"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. 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,” Unger said. "from the men and women working along the thin green line to ensure that our ecosystem remains healthy and intact."