Officials at the Miami International Airport heard a faint chirping coming from a passenger’s carry-on bag on March 23rd. They quickly brought the sound to the attention of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. Inside they found a bag containing 29 parrot eggs and, alarmingly, they were starting to hatch.
The eggs were housed in a “sophisticated” temperature-controlled cooler, that belongs to Szu Ta Wu. Wu had just arrived at the airport via TACA Airlines flight 392 from Managua, Nicaragua. According to a criminal complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Miami, he was in the process of changing flights to return home to Taiwan,
When he was stopped and asked about the chirping coming from his bag, he reached in and pulled out a smaller bag, and showed the officer an egg. Upon further inspection, the officer found 29 eggs with one, tiny, featherless bird that had just hatched. According to the complaint, Wu did not have any documents that allowed him to transport these birds.
With the parrots already starting to hatch the officer knew time was not on their side. They contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By that time, 8 of the 29 birds had already hatched or were in the process of hatching.
Federal officials reached out to Paul Reillo, a Florida International University professor and director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. “They didn’t know what these things were and wanted my advice on it,” said Reillo. Since baby parrots are featherless, it can be difficult to properly identify them. With his help, the group was able to set up a makeshift incubator in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s aviary at the airport.
“At that point we were off to the races,” he said. “We’ve got all these eggs, the chicks are hatching, the incubator’s running and by the time it was all said and done, we hatched 26 of the 29 eggs, and 24 of the 26 chicks survived.”
The following day, Dr. Stacy McFarlane, a USDA veterinarian, that also aided the hatching at the airport. Brought the baby parrots to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, where they are still being housed. USDA regulations required these birds to be quarantined for 45 days, so Reillo and his team have to scrub down anytime they enter or leave the room.
It took a forensics team at Florida International to help identify which of the 360 varieties of parrots these hatchlings were. They were identified through DNA samples from from the eggshells and the birds that did not survive. The 24 parrots seem to originate from 8 or 9 different clutches of eggs. Containing 2 species, the yellow-naped Amazon and the red-lored Amazon.
Unfortunately, both of these birds are popular with traffickers due to their appearance and nice temperament. The yellow-naped Amazon is considered “critically endangered” with a population of between 1,000 and 2,500 in the wild. The red-lored Amazon is also listed as having a decreasing population. The illegal trafficking of birds remains a huge problem for conservationists and rescue agencies. “In fact, the biggest threat to parrots globally is a combination of habitat loss and trafficking,” Reillo said. About 90% of eggs are poached for the illegal parrot trade.
“The vast majority of these trafficking cases end in tragedy,” explained Reillo. “The fact that the chicks were hatching the first day of his travel from Managua to Miami tells you that it’s extremely unlikely that any of them would have survived had he actually gotten all the way to his destination in Taiwan. That would have been another 24 to 36 hours of travel.”
Wu told investigators, through a Mandarin interpreter, that he was paid by a friend to go from Taiwan to Nicaragua to pick up the eggs. But he denies knowing what kind of birds they were. Wu was arrested and on May 5th he plead guilty to smuggling birds into the United States. A crime that has him facing up to 20 years in prison, he will be sentenced on August 1st.
Of course, this crime leaves the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation tasked with finding appropriate homes for the 24 birds. This is a serious undertaking considering these birds are not only highly intelligent, but they live for 60 to 70 years. While taking in any animal is a serious commitment, the fact that these birds will possibly outlive their new rescuers cranks that up to 11.
We hope all of these birds find the safe, loving homes that they deserve. You can learn more about the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation here.