Operation Game Thief Tip Leads to Six Indictments for Illegal Migratory Songbird Trafficking

Operation Game Thief Tip Leads to Six Indictments for Illegal Migratory Songbird Trafficking

AUSTIN— This week, a federal grand jury returned indictments charging six Cuban nationals from Houston with illegal trafficking of migratory songbirds, violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act. 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 more than 300 illegally trapped songbirds.

“Texas Game Wardens have a long, proud history of working alongside the USFWS 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 (TPWD). “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 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, which migrate from Canada through Texas to South America, are trapped as they pass through the Houston area. Commonly, a live “bait bird” whose singing attracts other birds is used lure them to the trap.

“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 FWS 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.”

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.

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.

If convicted, the suspects 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.

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.

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.

The public is encouraged to report any instances of illegal wildlife trapping and trafficking to USFWS at  Wildlife Crime Tips | FWS.gov or TPWD through the Operation Game Thief hotline at 800-792-GAME (4263).