Singing said to be behind smuggling busts, but the money may be in fights among caged finches
NEW YORK, N.Y.––Circumstantial evidence hints that some or perhaps all of a parade of men caught in the act of allegedly bootlegging Guyanese seed finches into the U.S., purportedly to sell for use in high-stakes singing contests, might instead have been supplying finch fighters.
Both finch singing contests and finch fighting, as practiced in the U.S., have Guyanese ancestry. Both occur in the greater New York metropolitan area, with New England links––which is no surprise, since of the estimated 273,000 Guyana-born U.S. residents, 80% live within a few hours’ drive of New York City, with 140,000 in New York City itself.
Selling finches for $3,000 apiece?
But finch singing contests, unlike finch fighting, do not generate a constant demand for replacement birds, and in the U.S., at least, are less closely associated with high stakes gambling.
The most recent suspect, Francis Gurahoo, 39, was apprehended on June 16, 2019 at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, soon after arriving on flight BW 526 from Georgetown, Guyana.
“U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials found 34 live finches, each hidden inside a plastic hair-curler, inside of Gurahoo’s carry-on luggage when he was selected for a customs examination, according to a criminal complaint filed in Brooklyn federal court,” reported Natalie Musumeci for the New York Post.
According to the complaint, “Gurahoo admitted that he “planned to sell the finches for about $3,000 each, making for a payday of about $102,000,” Musumeci added.
Suspect freed on $25,000 bond
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service special agent Gabriel Harper “wrote in the complaint that ‘individuals keep finches to enter them in singing contests in Brooklyn and Queens,’” Musumeci continued. “Two finches sing and a judge selects the bird determined to have the best voice. A finch who wins these competitions becomes valuable and can sell in excess of $5,000,’” Musumeci summarized of Harper’s testimony.
Concluded Harper, “Although certain species of finch are available in the United States, species from Guyana are believed to sing better and are therefore more highly sought after.”
Gurahoo was reportedly released on $25,000 bond posted by his uncle and a cousin.
Recalled Musumeci, “Last December, federal authorities arrested a Guyanese man at JFK Airport for trying to smuggle in 70 finches concealed in hair rollers in a duffel bag.”
That bust came after Brooklyn resident Victor Benjamin, 72, and Bronx resident Insaf Ali, 57, were caught in possession of 26 finches that they were allegedly trying to smuggle through JFK Airport, also concealing them in hair curlers, in April 2018.
“The efforts of federal officials to stymie finch smuggling dates back more than a decade, documented by a 2008 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigation,” recalled Michael Bruce-Saddler for the Washington Post. “The 235-report, entitled Operation: G-Bird, details their covert analysis into the unlawful importation of finches,” based on information collected from multiple suspects in connection with the seizures of about 150 finches in all.
Some of the source material was collected as long ago as 1992.
Operation: G-Bird, published about a year before the perhaps most indicative bust involving finch commerce, focuses on trade associated with singing competitions, also called vinkensport, which is “finch sport” in Dutch.
Guyana, the purported hub of vinkensport in the Americas, borders Suriname, formerly called Dutch Guyana.
Vinkensport, according to Wikipedia, “is a competitive animal sport in which male common chaffinches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour.”
The calls are counted by notching long sticks.
Vinkensport is said to be chiefly practiced “in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in Belgium,” but it appears to have been copied from the songbird singing contests that have long been held in former Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia.
Continues Wikipedia, “Vinkensport traces its origins to competitions held by Flemish merchants in 1596,” beginning one year after the first Dutch voyage to Indonesia, “and is considered part of traditional Flemish culture. As of 2007, it was estimated that there are over 13,000 enthusiasts, called vinkeniers (“finchers”), breeding 10,000 birds every year. Animal rights activists have opposed the sport for much of its history,” in part because of the historical practice of blinding finches in the belief that this might improve their singing.
The Wikipedia claim about the popularity of vinkensport is questionable, in view that little record of it exists in online historical newspaper archives, but British poet, novelist, and animal advocate Thomas Hardy assailed vinkensport in his 1916 poem “The Blinded Bird,” and an alliance of blind World War I veterans won British legislation against it in 1920.
More recently, the Flemish Bird Protection Society in 2002 won a case before the Belgian Constitutional Court to prevent the Belgian government from relaxing a 1979 European Union law prohibiting the capture of wild finches.
Cheating of various sorts is reputedly rife in vinkensport, but a week after the Gurahoo bust at JFK International Airport, New York Post reporters Natalie Musumeci, Reuven Fenton, and Anabel Sosa found cause to doubt whether there really is big money involved in finch singing contests as conducted in the U.S.
“A hopping happening”
“Finch singing contests are a hopping happening in city parks,” Musemeci, Fenton, and Sosa confirmed. They observed “about 60 men, mostly Guyanese immigrants,” engaging in singing competitions at Phil Rizzuto Park in Richmond Hill, New York City.
But, Musemeci, Fenton, and Sosa wrote, “Where federal officials described gambling competitions in which the most golden-voiced finch can earn a reputation making it worth more than $5,000, the loftiest stakes at Sunday’s lazy meet-up were who had to buy the next round of breakfast from the bodega.”
Responded U.S. Customs & Border Protection spokesperson Anthony Bucci, “Even when they’re caught with finches in the bag or on their person they’ll deny it. So that the people in the Guyanese community would say that they don’t gamble on it — that it’s strictly a hobby — I have a hard time believing.”
“Just show me the money”
Clearly there is money in the finch traffic.
“So far this year, U.S. Customs & Border Protection agents have discovered 326 songbirds being smuggled through 16 major airports across the nation. Last year, agents confiscated 2,117,” observed Nate Schweber for New York Today.
But finch singing competitions are non-lethal in nature, involving no direct contact between birds. The numbers of human participants can be counted in the dozens, even where the Guyanese immigrant population is biggest. Even if some finch singing enthusiasts wager heavily on contests held somewhere out of sight, finch singing would not appear to generate enough demand for replacement finches to sustain an ongoing high volume commerce.
Finch fighting, on the other hand, might.
Few finch fighting busts have been reported.
The most recent may have been the June 2010 arrest of Douglas S. Mendes, then 29, of Framingham, Massachusetts, on 21 counts of promoting and/or hosting animal fights and 21 counts of animal cruelty.
“Prosecutor Matt Levitt said police began an investigation into possible contests involving male finches at the home after a police officer saw several finches and cages in the home when he went there on a report of a chimney fire,” reported Norman Miller for the Framingham MetroWest Daily News.
Mendes pleaded innocent, contending that most of the finches found in his possession actually belonged to a friend who had returned to Brazil.
What became of the case is unclear.
19 suspects & 150 birds nabbed in 2009 case
The police officer may have been aware of finch-fighting because of the July 26, 2009 raid on a home in Shelton, Connecticut, that netted 19 suspects, about 150 saffron finches, and $8,000 in cash.
The homeowner, Jurames Goulart, then 42, pleaded guilty in Derby Superior Court to a single misdemeanor count of cruelty to animals.
Two other defendants, including Goulart’s brother, Elito Goulart, were deported, according to New Haven Register reporter Michelle Tuccitto Sullo. Most of the rest, Sullo said, were assigned to an accelerated rehabilitation program. “The charges will be dropped if they successfully complete probation, which requires community service,” Sullo wrote.
Charges were reduced
Jurames Goulart, Sebastian Andrade, then 37, and Nonato Raimundo, then 51, both of Danbury, were initially charged with organizing a finch fighting ring that drew gamblers from as far as Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.
The sixteen other arrestees were initially charged as spectators.
Police said that some of the finches had sharpened beaks and one had a sharp metal object attached to his beak. The finches were apparently enticed to fight by the presence of female birds in a cage above the cage where the fights were held. The finches would be allowed to see each other from separate areas in the cage for a time before a connecting door was opened, allowing them to fight much like miniature gamecocks.
All 19 defendants were of Brazilian background, but Brazilian animal advocates and journalists told investigators that they had never before heard of finch fighting.
“Increased scrutiny from law enforcement”
On the day of the raid, however, Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar reported that finch singing contests held in the Richmond Hill district of Queens, New York “have drawn increased scrutiny recently from law enforcement, as federal officials target illegal smuggling of finches from Guyana. Authorities also suspect the men place illegal bets on the birds,” Salazar said, apparently referencing the Operation: G-Bird investigation.
Guyana, a small English-speaking nation on the Caribbean coast of South America, flanks Suriname with Brazil to the south.
While some of the Guyanese customs of finch singing competition are easily traced to vinkensport, slightly more than half the human population of Guyana are descended from 19th century South Asian and Chinese immigrants who brought Asian-style songbird competitions and songbird fighting with them.
Songbird contests & fighting in Asia today
Songbird contests ancestral to vinkensport continue today mainly in major Chinese cities, as well as in other Southeast Asian cities of significant ethnic Chinese population.
Songbird fighting continues mainly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of Central Asia, mostly as a marketplace gambling pastime.
In Central Asian-style songbird fighting, freshly captured wild birds held by silk threads are briefly pitted against each other until one quits or escapes. Both birds are released after the fight to avoid violating the Islamic prohibition on caging wild birds.
Songbird fights often occur in the same pits as cockfights, in proximity to domestic poultry. Because the wild-caught birds may have contact with infected poultry before release, songbird fighting is believed to be a vector for spreading avian diseases, including the potentially deadly H5N1 avian flu.