Friday, April 24, 2009

About New York - 13 Birds From Guyana, and a Chance at Stardom in New Yorkby Jim Dwyer -

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There is surprisingly good money to be made — and lost — on male finches when they sing to woo the females. On fine afternoons, the birds are taken in cages to Smokey Oval, a park in Richmond Hill, Queens, for singing contests. The finches are treated by Guyanese immigrants as if they were college basketball players: the wagering is ferocious.

The bird that sings the best wins, and successful owners can bring home $5,000. The judges in these matches are male humans, not girl finches, which presumably have their own notions of what makes for a good song of courtship.

“They’re judged on how mellifluous they are,” explained Deirdre von Dornum, a lawyer who recently acquired an expertise in the field of bird song contests. “Their range and length and sophistication of song.”

The money may be good, but it is not easy. Among Guyanese in Queens, the finches with the best reputation as singers are those that live in the grass back in Guyana. Whether they really are superior singers, or this is simply a matter of deflected longing for home, is impossible to say. It is enough that people believe the Guyanese finches are worth the trouble of evading quarantine requirements by smuggling them. And part of that trouble, naturally, involves law enforcement.

On Tuesday, a case involving 13 smuggled finches took Ms. von Dornum to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn along with nine other lawyers and law students, a forensic ornithologist flown in from Oregon, a federal magistrate, his law clerk, a court stenographer to document the proceedings, and 14 jurors.

The story begins on a summer day nearly three years ago, when customs officers at Kennedy Airport pulled Terrence McLean, a maintenance worker at a nursing home in Brooklyn, out of line when he arrived from Guyana. In his checked luggage, the officers found a bundle of grass seed.

One of the officers asked if Mr. McLean had any birds with him.

“No sir,” he replied.

His carry-on consisted of a plastic shopping bag with two bottles of duty free liquor. Also in the plastic bag was a small paper shopping bag. It held 13 plastic hair curlers. Inside the hair curlers were 13 live finches.

A team of federal agents fell on Mr. McLean, who was searched and found to have not a penny of cash. He spoke freely about the finches, which he called Towa Towas, according to papers filed in federal court.

Born in Guyana but now a United States citizen, he had gone home to settle his grandmother’s estate, with requests to bring back quality birds. He was to be paid $100 for each finch delivered in good condition. These were just his transport fees.

The birds were supplied by a man named Eric Thomas, apparently a leading source of Guyanese finches, who was paid directly by the buyers from New York. Nine were going to one man.

For himself, Mr. McLean said, he bought two birds for $200 each in an open market. “McLean said Thomas gets a better price from the sellers in the market, but they will raise the price for someone living in America, like McLean,” according to a report by a federal Fish and Wildlife Service agent.

In the United States, the price is higher still, Mr. McLean told the agent: from $300 to $1,500. “Asked why they use hair curlers, he said that the plastic does not trigger the metal detectors, and if you have only a couple of finches, the curlers can be put hidden beneath the clothes,” the report said.

That was not the end of the subterfuge. At the airport in Guyana, Mr. McLean went through security without the birds. Meanwhile, Mr. Thomas turned them over to an airport employee, who had been told what Mr. McLean would be wearing. “Are you Terry?” the airport employee asked, and told Mr. McLean to follow him to the cantina. There he handed over the bag of hair curlers and finches without a word.

IN court on Tuesday, the magistrate decided, after hearing from the forensic ornithologist, Pepper Trail, that Mr. McLean could not have violated a 1919 Guyanese law that bans the export of various wild birds because the classification of the finches had been revised since the law was enacted.

Mr. McLean, 36, pleaded guilty to filing a false customs declarations form.

“This is something that practically every one who flies has done at some point or another,” said Ms. von Dornum, who represented Mr. McLean.

Perhaps — but not with hair curlers filled with finches.