Painted bunting birds in South Florida are targets of illegal trapping. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Florida has cracked down on the trapping of songbirds -- which has been outlawed since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 -- by making it illegal to possess traps for them.
The birds are so valued for their singing ability and colorful feathers that trapping and trading has continued at illegal markets. Wildlife officials said much of the activity takes place in Florida.
The crackdown comes as the Audubon Society warns that two-thirds of North American birds are at increasing risk of extinction. Most of the birds are migratory, and millions fly through Florida every year. That means the impact of illegal trapping in Florida could be felt around North America and the Caribbean.
"Miami is the hub of the trapping and selling, certainly," said Capt. Travis Franklin of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "I'm aware of it being an issue in South Florida for at least 20 years."
According to the commission, the traps are either homemade or purchased and altered for songbird trapping. Usually hung in trees, they contain either food or a bird of the same species the trapper is targeting. Birds fall through a series of doors and can't back out.
Targeted species in South Florida include colorful painted bunting, indigo bunting, blue grosbeaks and clay-colored sparrows, and they sell for $100 or more on the black market. The price depends on a bird's rarity, color and singing ability.
The fish and wildlife commission also is monitoring other areas of Florida for illegal trapping. Franklin said officers have found activity around Naples on the Gulf Coast and, one arrest was made recently in Ocala in Central Florida. State authorities are training officers in other regions to find the traps.
As of Oct. 3, people must obtain a permit to own cage traps, and their traps have to be labeled. Otherwise, the traps can be confiscated and the owners charged with a crime. No arrests have been made under the new rule yet. Franklin said officers focus on public education for a few weeks after a new rule is enacted.
"Fall migration is starting now," Franklin said. "We anticipate successful cases soon."
In Florida, birds are vulnerable to rising seas, coastal erosion, storms, droughts, invasive species or parasites, and development.
"Making the traps illegal should make the cost of doing business more expensive for those who are breaking the law," said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. "I hope that the willingness to trap birds will diminish."
The fish and wildlife commission passed the new rule after years of hearings and feedback, with Audubon Florida at the forefront of the effort. Even before the rule was enacted, more than 100 traps were confiscated containing birds, according to the commission's communication office.
"Trapping and keeping these songbirds is a cultural issue in many ways, but that doesn't excuse it," Wraithmell told UPI.
An undercover sting took place in Miami over a period of years after wildlife agent David Pharo started investigating the region's large illegal trade in the early 2000s, according to court records. At the time he was a park agent for Everglades National Park, where he stumbled upon traps set up in trees near the park boundary.
Over the years, federal prosecutors announced charges against six defendants in six separate cases for their involvement with the trafficking of over 400 migratory birds.
Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 54, of Homestead, was first to be charged in an 18-count indictment with selling, offering for sale, bartering, and offering to barter migratory birds -- which are felonies. According to court records, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison with a year of probation.
Rodriguez gave undercover officers details about the ongoing black market, all of it recorded as evidence for his eventual prosecution. According to court records, Rodriguez said some trappers use illegal "mist nets" stretched across fields to catch any birds flying by.
Audubon officials say birds sometimes are left hanging in the nets until they die naturally or they are attacked by feral dogs and cats.
Smuggling birds from Cuba also is listed in court cases. One defendant was charged in 2018 with bringing birds into the United States concealed in hair curlers taped to his legs. Authorities say 80 percent of birds smuggled in such fashion die en route or soon after.
"If you're not allowed to trap songbirds and there's no legitimate reason to have these supplies, they should be illegal," Audubon's Wraithmell said.
Given that making arrests has been difficult in the past, current data about the illegal activity is probably "a drop in the bucket," she said.
The agency needs help from the public to find traps, the fish and wildlife commission's Franklin said.
Reporting one trap can bring a $300 reward under Florida's Wildlife Alert program if an arrest is made and more if birds are in them, he said.
The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905, partly in outrage over widespread killing of wading birds in Florida, like egrets and herons.
At the time, feathers were sought for women's hats. Wading bird numbers have been recovering for decades, with large "super colonies" reported in the Everglades by Audubon in recent years when the weather is favorable.
"There's a source of hope in our history, because you can see that cultural mores shift over time. It doesn't have to stay this way," Wraithmell said.
She recommends that people who like birds buy a pet. "I have no problem with the legal pet trade," she said.