Parrot smuggling at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing is on the upswing, and if their contraband does not turn into stool pigeons the smugglers can glean bigger profits than some runners of bootleg marijuana.
And while penalties for smuggling parrots are less severe than they are for marijuana, pound per pound larger profits can be made with the birds than with the weed.
The markup on Mexican marijuana is about 100 percent. A pound of pot in Mexico can cost about $60 to $70 and its resale price in the United States is $140, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigator said.
But the markup on parrots starts at 300 percent. A double yellow head, the parrot with the highest demand, can be bought in Tijuana for less than $90. San Diego pet stores sell them for $300 and up to $2,000.
The penalty smuggling parrots is not as tough as for marijuana.
Parrot smugglers can get three years behind bars if authorities decide that the venture has commercial purposes and involves many birds, according to Tom Welsh, chief inspector for U.S. Customs.
But for persons bringing in one or two parrots illegally the trend has been to give them just a fine proportional to the bird's market value.
The penalty for bringing marijuana across the border is a stiff five years, regardless of the amount, federal defenders' legal researcher Ben Rayborn said.
Ten to 15 years can be added to the sentence if the smuggler also is convicted of conspiracy or possession with intent to distribute the weed.
But to the erstwhile parrot smuggler the prospect of making big profits far outweighs the chance of getting caught.
"Profitability in parrots is very high, and without a question it is a very significant business," U.S. customs investigator Bill Maglin said.
Maglin sees no possible decrease on the parrot smuggling business as long as there is a high demand for exotic birds in the United States and as long as the supply in this country cannot meet the increasing demand.
Curiously, he said he has noticed the demand for all exotic birds has increased since television's "Baretta" made a cockatoo one of the series' secondary characters.
Getting the bird across the border is only a matter of keeping the bird quiet, experts say. At the downtown market in Tijuana, the men who sell the birds advise the buyer to wrap the parrot inside a paper bag and hide it under a seat of the car or inside a sleeve.
"As long as the bird is in the dark it will not make any noises," a Tijuana salesman said.
Another common way to keep the bird quiet is to give him tequila and then hold his beak shut, a veterinarian said.
U.S. customs officials have no estimates as to how many parrots are being brought in illegally, but they say that the number has increased in the last couple of years.
Tom Welsh, chief inspector of U.S. Customs at San Ysidro, said that for the last two years they have been seizing an average of about 30 parrots a month while before they found a lot fewer.
A Department of Agriculture official said that an individual may bring a parrot into the United States only if he can prove that he has owned and kept the bird in his possession for 90 days. He must also prove that the bird has been quarantined and once in this country, he must submit the parrot to the Department of Agriculture for inspection.
Because of the potential danger of disease that those birds pose, penalties ranging from a $200 fine to a felony charge are given to parrot smugglers, Welsh said.
Fines depend on the type of bird and on the number of them being brought.